LIMELIGHT is an interesting film in the Charlie Chaplin canon. In his last American film, Chaplin stars as Calvero, a once-famous English music hall comedian, who saves a young ballerina (Claire Bloom) from suicide and helps her regain belief in her talent. The title card at the beginning of the film tells us that the story is about “the glamour of limelight, from which age must pass as youth enters.”
As David Robinson states in his introduction to the 2003 DVD release, Chaplin evokes “bittersweet nostalgia for the world of his youth, the world of the London music halls at the opening of the 20th century where he had first discovered his own genius as an entertainer.”
The nostalgia is certainly bittersweet as Chaplin seems to be grappling with his own faithless audience who abandoned him following an unpleasant paternity suit and attacks by the American Legion in the late 1940s. The unpleasant atmosphere in the U.S. forced Chaplin into self-imposed exile following the film’s premiere in London and he would live the rest of his life in Switzerland.
Chaplin spent two years writing the film, even going so far as to write a full-length novel, Footlights, prior to writing the screenplay. The novel provides biographical details of Calvero and Terry (Bloom), mixing in episodes from his own life and that of his parents. The feeling of autobiography is further carried over into the film with his son, Sydney, playing the male secondary lead; his eldest son, Charles Chaplin, Jr., as a clown in the ballet; his three youngest children—Geraldine, Josephine, and Michael—in the opening scene; his half-brother, Wheeler Dryden, as the doctor; and even his young wife, Una (daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Eugene O’Neill), subbing for Claire Bloom in two brief shots.
Once sound became the norm, Chaplin wrote the melodies for all of his films, employing orchestrators to translate his tunes into a proper score. Terry’s poignant theme is first heard over the main titles and contains one of Chaplin’s most memorable melodies which was later set to words as “Eternally” (lyric by Geoffrey Parsons). The theme serves as the musical throughline of the story with Terry’s youth replacing the aged, and serves as the backbone upon which the ballet, in which Terry becomes a star, is based.
The music for the ballet was composed prior to the filming and was originally twenty-five minutes long, later trimmed down to the ten-minute running time in the film. In keeping with the nostalgic music hall atmosphere of the fading clown, Calvero sings some original songs—”The Animal Trainer,” “Spring Is Here,” “The Sardine Song”—in flashbacks of his earlier stage triumphs.
The year 1972 was a big year for Chaplin and the film. When it was released in 1952, only a few American theatre owners would distribute the film given the political climate and the country’s opinion of Chaplin at the time. Subsequently, it wasn’t shown in a Los Angeles theater until 1972, thereby qualifying it for Academy Award consideration twenty years after the premiere.
Earlier in the year, Chaplin returned to the States for the first time since his exile to receive an honorary Oscar “for the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century.” Chaplin returned to Hollywood and a standing ovation; however, the U.S. government would only grant him a two-month visa. Hence, when he won the following year for the score to LIMELIGHT, he did not return to pick up the statuette.
Though I will not begrudge Chaplin any awards, the story behind his win for Best Original Dramatic Score is an interesting one. The third name on the Oscar ballot along with Chaplin and Raymond Rasch was Larry Russell, uncredited anywhere in the film. In an interview with Soundtrack magazine, composer Russell Garcia, best known for the sci-fi film THE TIME MACHINE (1960), attempted to shed light on the mystery surrounding the film.
“I also worked on Charlie Chaplin’s film, Limelight,” Garcia said. “That was a big rhubarb later. Charlie Chaplin wrote the themes, the melodies. He was a real talent…Charlie would sing or play one finger on the piano and Ray Rasch was the pianist—and he said, “Ray, why don’t you score this film? I’ve written all the melodies, why don’t you score it?’ Ray said ‘Okay.’ But he didn’t know how to orchestrate, so he got me to work with him and I orchestrated the whole film. Of course we had to do a lot of composing with Charlie’s themes, but they were all Chaplin’s themes. Later, they gave a posthumous Academy Award to Charlie Chaplin for this film [NOTE: This is a mistake. Chaplin did not die until 1977.], and they said ‘Well, Ray Rasch has got scoring credit, but he passed away; somebody worked closely with him on this and did a lot of work, somebody by the name of Russell.’ And somebody said, ‘I think it was Larry Russell,’ who was an arranger around town at that time, so they awarded the award to Ray Rasch, Charlie Chaplin and Larry Russell! Now I don’t know if Larry Russell had anything to do with the film at all, it was actually me. And, I didn’t make any rhubarb about it, you know. So Larry Russell had died in the meantime, so they couldn’t check that out with him either. A lot of things like that happen in this business.”
As to who wrote what will never be known for sure. But I doubt Chaplin would have won the Oscar had not Nino Rota’s memorable score for THE GODFATHER been deemed ineligible. Rota’s score was originally announced as one of the five official nominees. It was later pointed out that portions of the score and the main theme were composed by Rota for his score to the 1958 Italian film, FORTUNELLA.
The Music Branch was given this information and re-balloted to determine the fifth nomination. The list of six films they were to choose from were the remaining five of the top ten preliminary listings, plus the GODFATHER score. The results of the re-balloting were that the fifth nomination became John Addison’s SLEUTH, leaving the category wide open and giving voters a chance to award Chaplin his only competitive Oscar. Of course, voters chose to ignore the same situation two years later and awarded Rota for his score to THE GODFATHER, PART II which used themes from the original film.
For more on LIMELIGHT and the Oscar controversy, check out my book, The Music of Charlie Chaplin.