London, 1914. Calvero (Charles Chaplin), a once-great music hall comedian, weaves drunkenly home to his shabby flat. As he arrives home, he is suddenly sobered by a bad smell. It isn't his shoes, as he originally assumes, but the smell of gas, emanating from behind a locked door. Calvero smashes his way in, finding the unconscious Terry (Claire Bloom). Carrying the girl to his attic apartment, Calvero revives Terry, then asks why she is so determined to kill herself. The girl explains that she has always dreamed of becoming a great dancer, but her legs are paralyzed. Calvero vows to raise enough money to help the girl. He goes back on stage, where his old-fashioned act is greeted with a riot of silence. Now it is Terry's turn to encourage Calvero to go on living-and in so doing, she regains the use of her legs. Hired by the Empire theatre corps de ballet, Terry arranges for the management to hire Calvero as a supernumerary. Impresario Postant (Nigel Bruce), not recognizing the famous Calvero in clown makeup, fires him. Only after Terry pleads with Postant to give Calvero another chance does the producer relent, securing a comeback appearance for the ageing comedian and his old partner (Buster Keaton). Calvero's antics bring down the house, just like the old days, but the effort is too much for the old fellow, and he collapses backstage. As Calvero dies, he proudly watches his protegee Terry carry on the "show must go on tradition" by dancing for the crowd. Thanks to the political climate of the time, Limelight was denied a wide distribution; in fact, it didn't play Los Angeles until 1972, twenty years after its completion. At that time, Chaplin's theme music, which had gained popularity on the "hit parade," was honored with an Academy Award. While the film has moments of unmatched hilarity (especially during the fabled Chaplin-Keaton teaming towards the end), the elegiac tone of Limelight was best summed up by critic Andrew Sarris: "To imagine one's own death, one must imagine the death of the world, that world which has always dangled so helplessly from the tips of Chaplin's eloquent fingers."
by Hal Erickson synopsis