LIMELIGHT must serve as the ultimate "love it or hate it" film. If you fit into the "hate it" category, then you'll find this a silly, self-serving, self-indulgent, over-long piece of megalomania. You may think of it as overly sentimental and possibly emotionally manipulative, with Chaplin pitying himself at every turn and pitching all his neuroses onto the big screen. On the other hand, I absolutely adore it. Sure, it's melodrama, but it's the purest and best form of melodrama. It comes straight from Chaplin's heart and the autobiographical feel gives the sad moments just that much more of a kick.
Set in London in 1914, the story and its characters are very simple. An old music hall clown at the end of his career turns to alcoholism and a young ballerina loses her confidence and attempts suicide. If that sounds depressing, you're right; and that's only the film's opening sequence. The movie isn't an out and out downer though; it has its emotional highs and lows as the pair pursues the only thing that brings meaning to their lives -- the stage. It's interesting to note that during the dream sequence where Calvero (Chaplin) performs alone, the audience disappears; when his dream places Terry (Claire Bloom) alongside him, the applause echoes. And, of course, without Calvero to encourage her, the ballerina cannot perform.
Odd to say this about a Chaplin film, but the dialog is marvelous. It shouts out to be quoted, with Chaplin's character opining on everything up to and including the meaning of life. Sure, it isn't realistic, but the speeches are great and fit in with the movie's bombastic attitude.
It's the relationship between the young ballerina and the old clown that brings me back to this film. The documentary touches on this briefly and raises the right questions. Are they in love? Can they be? Are they fooling themselves as well as each other? They both clearly need each other, but how self-destructive is the relationship? Calvero tries to teach Terry to be optimistic while standing on the cliff of depression himself and Terry praises Calvero's abilities while unable to come to terms with her own. The questions and contradictions make for a very thought-provoking experience.
Much has been made about Buster Keaton's extended cameo near the film's conclusion. I've read that during the filming Keaton was much funnier in their comedy scene together and Chaplin (being director) edited the result in such a way as to throw the spotlight back on himself. I've also read denials that this ever happened, and I've even read that even if this were true, it makes sense in the context of how the film is progressing (Calvero being upstaged at this moment would have wrecked the whole point of the scene). I honestly don't know what's true, but Keaton's presence is more than welcome, serving as a grumpy counterpoint, anchoring the film before it floats away in schmaltz. It seems oddly fitting that he is present in the background as a witness to Calvero/Chaplin's farewell.
The DVD extras work well, with a whole second disc devoted purely to features. The "Chaplin Today" mini-documentaries have been the highlights of these Chaplin DVDs and the one on here continues that tradition, a nice balance being struck between contemporary analysis and interviews with the surviving cast. In addition, included is all that exists of a short film from 1919 in which Chaplin plays the headman in a flea circus, a gag which he would eventually use in LIMELIGHT.
The film's Oscar winning soundtrack is also available on the second disc, though one can only select tracks and cannot rewind or fast forward through individual selections. Also included are two homemade movies from the Chaplin estate, the first being the family running around enjoying themselves in the US in 1950, while the second documents Chaplin returning to his childhood London neighborhood in 1959. They're about as dull as one would expect watching someone's vacation films to be. The selections are silent (the only noise is the gentle whirring of the projector) and the second piece could really have used some narration to explain what we are looking at.
LIMELIGHT works on so many different levels. It's the story of two fictional characters. But it's also the story of the end of the music halls. And it's also clearly autobiographical, with Chaplin sensing the end of his career and his life. And, ultimately, it's a comment on humanity, the old fading away and their place being taken by the young. It's a bittersweet movie, with even the final tragedy somehow giving us hope for the future. An excellent film if you allow yourself to become caught up in it.