AFI Catalog of Feature Films
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Limelight
Alternate Title: Footlight
Director: Charles Chaplin (Dir)
Release Date:   6 Feb 1953
Premiere Information:   New York opening: 23 Oct 1952; Los Angeles opening: 1972
Production Date:   19 Nov 1951--mid-Jan 1952 at Charles Chaplin Studios
Duration (in mins):   138 or 143
Duration (in reels):   8
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Cast:   Charles Chaplin (Calvero)  
    Claire Bloom (Thereza [Ambrose])  
    Nigel Bruce (Postant)  
    Buster Keaton (Calvero's partner)  
    Sydney Chaplin (Neville)  
    Norman Lloyd (Bodalink)  
    Andre Eglevsky (Dancer)  
    Melissa Hayden (Dancer)  
    Marjorie Bennett (Mrs. Alsop)  
    Wheeler Dryden (Thereza's doctor)  
    Barry Bernard (John Redfern)  
    Stapleton Kent (Claudius)  
    Mollie Glessing (Maid)  
    Leonard Mudi (Calvero's doctor)  
    Loyal Underwood (Street musician)  
    Snub Pollard (Street musician)  
    Julian Ludwig (Street musician)  
    Geraldine Chaplin (Child on stairs)  
    Michael Chaplin (Child on stairs)  
    Josephine Chaplin (Child on stairs)  
    Charles Chaplin Jr. (Ballet dancer)  

Summary: In London in 1914, aging, drunken comedian Calvero returns to his apartment house to find young neighbor Thereza Ambrose collapsed. Realizing that she has tried to gas herself to death, Calvero carries her to his apartment, where a doctor informs him that she cannot be moved for a few days. Against the wishes of landlady Mrs. Alsop, Calvero lets Thereza stay. When she wakes hours later, she moans to find that she is still alive, but he points out that human consciousness is precious. That night, he dreams that he is performing a brilliant vaudeville skit about a flea circus, but when he finishes, the theater is empty. The next day, Thereza discovers that Mrs. Alsop has rented out her room, and cries that she is destitute and homeless and, because she has rheumatic fever, cannot work as a ballerina. Calvero swears to heal her and, over the next few days, tries to dissuade her of her conviction that life is meaningless. As he charms her, her sweetness also captivates him, and one night he dreams of a comic treatise on love in which they co-star. The next morning, she discovers she cannot move her legs, but Calvero insists that she continue to fight, just as he does, in spite of the fact that his career is ruined. He reveals that he began to fail as a comedian when he tried to bring dignity to his acts, and then began drinking, which led to a heart attack. Just then, a telegram arrives from his agent, John Redfern, and Calvero rushes to see him. After waiting for hours, he is informed that he will be allowed to play at a music hall, but only under an assumed name. At home, Thereza's doctor assures Calvero that her paralysis is only psychological, and over the next week Calvero coaxes her to tell him about her sister, who was forced into prostitution to pay for Thereza's ballet school. When she reveals that her legs began to hurt when she saw a friend from her old school, he reasons that the friend brought on feelings of guilt about her sister and caused her illness. She also tells him about a poor young composer named Neville with whom she fell in love years ago, and Calvero prophesizes that someday they will meet again and fall in love. Soon, he makes her stand and help around the house, and, as his home fills with happiness, he stops drinking. When the music hall show opens, he does not tell Thereza, and the show bombs on opening night. He returns home devastated and Thereza, repeating the words of encouragement that he once spoke to her, walks for the first time in months. She declares her love for him, but he objects that he is too old. Six months later, she wins the lead role in a ballet and finagles a part for Calvero as a clown. As she practices in the theater, the new composer, Neville, is brought in, and although Thereza recognizes him, she pretends she does not know him. At lunch the next day, however, he sits with her, and she admits remembering him but tells him she is marrying Calvero. They later rehearse the ballet, the story of Harlequin, who loves the dying Columbine. Columbine asks for clowns to entertain her, and during their show, she dies. Harlequin mourns her at her graveside, but her spirit returns to prove to him that part of her lives on with him. At the premiere weeks later, Thereza's legs buckle before the second act. Only Calvero's slap snaps her out of her hysterical paralysis, and she goes on to perform brilliantly. At the celebratory dinner, Calvero gets drunk alone, and overhears Neville tell Thereza at the end of the night that he loves her. Neville insists that Thereza only pities Calvero, but she tells him that she loves the older man's soul. The next day, Calvero tries to leave her but she will not let him. When he visits the theater, however, he discovers that the producer, Postant, is trying to re-cast his role. Despairing and convinced that Thereza is better off without him, he leaves town. Over the next months, Thereza becomes a worldwide sensation. One day, her show returns to London, and Neville discovers Calvero performing on a street corner. When the clown learns that Thereza and Neville are lovers, he remains upbeat, happy with his current lot in life. Thereza finds him within hours and begs him to come back to her, and although he loves her, he demurs. Postant soon offers Calvero a benefit performance, and eager to prove he is not a failure, Calvero agrees. Before the show, he drinks heavily and is a huge hit. He returns for a long slapstick encore, and by the time he finishes, he suffers a heart attack. He is brought to the dressing room, where he tells Thereza they will travel the world together. When Thereza is called onto the stage, Calvero asks to be moved to the wings so he can watch her, and as she dances, he dies. 

Production Company: Celebrated Films Corp.  
Distribution Company: United Artists Corp.  
Director: Charles Chaplin (Dir)
  Robert Aldrich (Asst dir)
  Jack Verne (Asst dir)
Producer: Charles Chaplin (Prod)
Writer: Charles Chaplin (Orig story and scr)
Photography: Karl Struss (Dir of photog)
  Roland Totheroh (Photog consultant)
  Wally Chewning (Cam op)
  Dick Johnson (Asst cam op)
  Monroe Askins (Asst cam op)
  George Hommel (Stills)
Art Direction: Eugene Lourie (Art dir)
Film Editor: Joe Inge (Film ed)
  Edward Phillips (Asst film ed)
Costumes: Riley Thorne (Ward des)
  Drew Tetrick (Ward)
Music: Charles Chaplin (Mus comp)
  Larry Russell (Mus comp)
  Ray Rasch (Arr)
  Charles Chaplin (Arr)
  Keith Williams (Cond)
Sound: Hugh McDowell (Sd)
  Harold E. McGhan (Sd ed)
Dance: Andre Eglevsky (Choreog)
  Melissa Hayden (Choreog)
  Charles Chaplin (Choreog)
  Carmelita Maracci (Corps de Ballet)
Make Up: Ted Larsen (Makeup)
  Florence Avery (Hairstylist)
Production Misc: Jerome L. Epstein (Asst to Mr. Chaplin)
  Wheeler Dryden (Asst to Mr. Chaplin)
  Lonnie D'Orsa (Prod mgr)
  Alfred Lewin (Comptroller)
  Harry Crocker (Pub dir)
Country: United States
Language: English

Music: "Eternally (Terry's Theme)" and "The Death of Columbine," music by Charles Chaplin.
Songs: "The Animal Trainer," "Spring Is Here" and "The Life of a Sardine," words and music by Charles Chaplin.
Composer: Charles Chaplin
Source Text:

Copyright Claimant Copyright Date Copyright Number
Celebrated Films Corp. 23/10/1952 dd/mm/yyyy LP2006

PCA NO: 16080
Physical Properties: Sd: RCA Sound System
  b&w:

 
Genre: Melodrama
  Melodrama
Sub-Genre: Show business
  with songs
 
Subjects (Major): Ballerinas
  Ballet
  Comedians
  Psychosomatic illness
  Romance--Age difference
  Self-sacrifice
 
Subjects (Minor): Alcoholism
  Attempted suicide
  Clowns
  Composers
  Disease
  Dismissal (Employment)
  Dreams
  Landladies
  London (England)
  Physicians
  Prostitution
  Romantic rivalry
  Sisters
  Street entertainers
  Theatrical agents
  Vaudeville

Note: The working title of this film was Footlight . A written onscreen foreword reads: "The glamour of limelight, from which age must pass as youth enters. A story of a ballerina and a clown...London; a late afternoon in the summer of 1914..." Although copyright records list the film's running time as 102 minutes, all other sources list it as either 138 or 143 minutes.
       Charles Chaplin worked for two and a half years on the screenplay of Limelight and then devoted nine months to the score, six months to shooting and one year to post-production work. According to a Mar 1952 Life article, the original manuscript was 750 pages long. A modern source credits James Agee as helping Chaplin edit the screenplay. In Feb 1951, Chaplin placed a newspaper advertisement to find an unknown actress to play "Thereza." He stated in an Apr 1951 NYT news item that he had seen almost 300 actresses. After casting Claire Bloom, he told HCN in Nov 1951 that he would not allow her to do any pre-publicity, in order to keep her appearance "fresh." She went on to win critical acclaim as Thereza, which was only her second film role. Although the movie's theme song, "Eternally (Terry's Theme)," was written by Chaplin with words by Geoffrey Parsons, only an instrumental version was used in the film. The song went on to gain prominence when recorded by Sarah Vaughan and others.
       Upon completing the film, Chaplin sailed to London for the 16 Oct 1952 world premiere. In his autobiography, Chaplin, who retained his British citizenship throughout his career and never became a U.S. citizen, reported that he asked to leave for Europe and receive a re-entry permit. He was then visited by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, who claimed that he owed $200,000 in back taxes and interrogated him for several hours. Chaplin was then given a six-month re-entry permit, which was immediately revoked after he left for England, pending an inquiry into political and moral charges against him. Although there was no clear evidence against Chaplin, the government was concerned with his possible ties to the Communist party and also investigated his involvement in former paramour Joan Barry's abortion. The Justice Department initiated a probe against the director, headed by Attorney General James P. McGranery, who, according to a Jan 1953 LAEx article, labeled Chaplin "an unsavory character...indicating a leering, sneering attitude toward the country whose gracious hospitality enriched him." Chaplin stated in his autobiography that although he was not a Communist, he was not opposed to their beliefs, and condemned the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
       As the controversy raged, distributor United Artists continued its release plan to open the film in New York in Oct 1952. The American Legion's national committee called for all distributors to withhold the picture until the Department of Justice made its ruling, and in an Oct 1952 LAT item, criticized Chaplin's "contemptuous attitude toward American patriotism," as well as his "views of personal morality." Although the New York opening and other East Coast screenings went as planned, various veterans' groups joined forces with the Legion and threatened to picket the film's California opening, and RKO board chairman Howard Hughes urged RKO theaters not to book the film, prompting distributor Fox West Coast to cancel the scheduled Dec showings in Los Angeles. The chain stated in an Oct 1952 LAT article that they did not want to be a "guinea pig" in testing public reaction to the film's showing. Soon, the rest of the country also bowed to public pressure and banned the picture. Limelight was Chaplin's last American film. He moved to Vevey, Switzerland and vowed never to return to the United States.
       Because Limelight did not receive a Los Angeles screening during 1952, it was not eligible for that year's Academy Awards. The film went on to win several international awards, including the Italian Film Critics Association Silver Ribbon award for best foreign film. It received its first California screening in Oct 1955, when it opened in San Francisco for one week. Then, on 13 Dec 1972, Limelight had its Los Angeles premiere, released by Columbia Pictures, and won the 1972 Oscar for Best Original Dramatic Score (Chaplin, Ray Rasch and Larry Russell). Breaking his promise never to set foot on American soil again, Chaplin returned in 1972 for a special lifetime achievement Academy Award. He died in Switzerland in 1977, after being knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.
       Limelight marked the motion picture debuts of Sydney Chaplin and Charles Chaplin, Jr., Chaplin's sons by his second wife, actress Lita Grey. Other family members in the cast included Chaplin's young children by his wife Oona O'Neil, Josephine, Geraldine and Michael; and his half-brother, Wheeler Dryden. A Jan 1952 HR news item includes Trevor Ward, Doris Lloyd and Richard Dean in the cast, but their appearance in the final picture has not been confirmed. The film marked the first time that Chaplin and Buster Keaton worked together. 

Bibliographic Sources:   Date   Page
Box Office   11 Oct 52   p. 20.
Box Office   18 Oct 1952.   
Daily Variety   8 Jan 1952.   
Daily Variety   24 Feb 1952.   
Daily Variety   22 Aug 1952.   
Daily Variety   10 Oct 52   p. 3.
Daily Variety   28 Jan 1953.   
Film Daily   8 Oct 52   p. 10.
Hollywood Citizen-News   13 Nov 1951.   
Hollywood Citizen-News   5 Dec 1951.   
Hollywood Citizen-News   11 Dec 1952.   
Hollywood Citizen-News   16 Jan 1953.   
Hollywood Reporter   14 Nov 51   p. 1.
Hollywood Reporter   21 Nov 51   p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter   30 Nov 51   p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter   4 Jan 52   p. 5.
Hollywood Reporter   11 Jan 52   p. 15.
Hollywood Reporter   19 Sep 52   p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter   25 Sep 52   p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter   10 Oct 52   p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter   7 Oct 1955.   
International Photographer   Jan 52   p. 21.
Life   17 Mar 1952   pp. 117-27.
Los Angeles Examiner   16 Oct 1952.   
Los Angeles Examiner   16 Jan 1953.   
Los Angeles Herald Express   7 Feb 1953.   
Los Angeles Mirror   7 Feb 1952.   
Los Angeles Times   28 Feb 1951.   
Los Angeles Times   12 Oct 1952.   
Los Angeles Times   16 Oct 1952.   
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest   11 Oct 52   p. 1557.
New York Times   29 Apr 1951.   
New York Times   23 Oct 52   p. 39.
New York Times   24 Oct 52   p. 27.
Time   2 Apr 1950.   
Variety   24 Sep 1952.   
Variety   10 Oct 52   p. 6.
Variety   2 Dec 1953.   

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.
 
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