Length: 137 minutes / 2.28 hours
While it is rare to find a film by/starring Charlie Chaplin that isn’t uproariously funny, the depth of the drama of this piece certainly shows the range everyone’s favorite silent actor could perform. Chaplin will always have the little idiosyncracies in the way he moves, but when they’re applied to a washed-up drunk, suddenly they take a much more serious turn. Films like The Dictator (1940) and Monsieur Verdoux (1947) certainly have their amusing moments, but work better as social commentaries, or at least are more direct about their message than the earlier films like The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931), and Modern Times (1936).
What’s really interesting about Limelight is it feels almost as autobiographical as it does groundbreaking. I mean, if we were to name one famous actor who excelled at playing a “tramp”, Chaplin is the only one who would come to mind (although Buster Keaton, who also appears in the film, might come close). The fact that Calvero (Chaplin) was famous for the same schtick, and now he finds himself irrelevant perhaps speaks to Chaplin’s alienation in Hollywood due to his outspoken opinions on world politics at the time. But what speaks to the audience the most is the flawed nature of the characters. One is a psychosomatic depressed ballerina, the other a textbook alcoholic comedian struggling to find relevance.
There have been a number of recent films which have tried to do a similar plot to Limelight justice, and each has taken their own spin on it. From The Artist (2011) and its silent film star pushed out of the spotlight by the technological advancement of “talking pictures” to Birdman: or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (2015) with its alcoholic, washed-up actor searching to remake himself in spite of his past success, neither fully captures what Charlie Chaplin could in Limelight.
Not a Chaplin film you’d expect, but a superb dramatic piece nonetheless, I give Limelight 4.5 stars out of 5.