November 4, 2011

#11: City Lights

So far on this list we have seen two wildly different Charlie Chaplin films: Modern Times and The Gold Rush, from 1936 and 1925, respectively. Now comes City Lights from 1931, completing the Chaplin triptych (Chaptych?) and rounding out his influence on American cinema. If Modern Times showcase his political and satirical side and The Gold Rush embodies his physical comedy and slapstick chops, City Lights is Chaplin's ode to romance and sentimentality.

Company: alone on this one.

Cuisine: Wheat Thins and a Red Stripe. Classy.

In 1931, talkies were the new trend and Hollywood was moving quickly away from silent film, but Chaplin knew that his style of storytelling would still work best without dialogue. The film is subtitled "A Comedy Romance in Pantomime," preparing us for the sweet little silent movie we're about to see.

A new statue is being dedicated by people who talk like kazoos. (Love it.) When it's unveiled, Chaplin's tramp is found sleeping on it. When he's chased away by the crowd, he wanders the streets, poor and homeless, where he stumbles upon...

The girl.

Virginia Cherrill plays a blind flower girl, selling her wares for piddly change on a street corner where the tramp falls head over heels for her. Naturally, the rest of the story follows the tramp's quest to land the girl... even if she can't see him. The scenes are played delicately, even with intertitles.

When the tramp hilariously and somewhat accidentally saves the life of a depressed millionaire (Harry Myers), the eccentric takes him under his wing and treats him to a night on the town. The two get pretty hammered (keep in mind, when this film came out, the sale of alcohol was still illegal and prohibition lasted two years more) to the point where the tramp mistakes a hanging streamer for his pasta dinner (at such a fancy place, a plain plate of spaghetti?) Things are going well.

But in the morning, the millionaire wakes with no memory of the evening and is consequently distressed to find a little splay-footed man in a bowler hat squatting in his mansion. That's a pretty intense black out. He throws him out once more and the tramp finds the girl once again.

With money from the millionaire, the tramp buys all the flowers he can from the girl, hoping not to buy her love but to better her situation and, inspired by an article he reads in the newspaper, raise money for a new (fictional) operation that could cure her blindness.

The tramp's resolve to help the girl is what propels the film, and while this story line doesn't have the thematic heft of Modern Times or the physical brilliance of The Gold Rush, all three films concern the common man's struggle against the increasingly modern world. Chaplin's insistence on continuing in the silent tradition was, in his own way, his resistance against the same machinations in which the tramp finds himself.

Naturally, a movie like this would only really work with a genius at its center, someone whom the audience roots for no matter what., and it was George Bernard Shaw who said that Chaplin was "the only genius to come out of the movie industry." All the same, I was a lot more compelled by the romance in Modern Times than in this one, perhaps because it's so one-sided. We see in Cherrill's blank stare and constancy that she may love the tramp too, but Chaplin is pulling all the weight here.

In a desperate get-rich-quick scheme, the tramp enters a boxing ring. The tiny little tramp boxing? Can you imagine? I bet you can't. So here's a clip:

This physical comedy is what I love Chaplin for most, and I wished more of the film could have gone here, the way The Gold Rush doesn't ever let up. Alas, only this and a few other moments.

But there is a great emotional pay off at the end, and without spoiling it, many historians and great film figures have stated that the ending of City Lights is one of the great film endings of all time. Even Chaplin, who favored this film above all his others, was most proud of his acting in the final moments of the film. "In City Lights," said Chaplin, "just the last scene … I’m not acting …. Almost apologetic, standing outside myself and looking … It’s a beautiful scene, beautiful, and because it isn’t over-acted." If this kind of thing is his legacy to film acting, well, so be it. I'll take that.

Bottom line: if this film is not as great for me as the other two of the list, I can handle that.

Only ten left! I can't believe it. Today is November 4th. Will I get it done before the new year? It's possible, but it'll take some stamina. Next up: something near and dear to my heart since I'm currently in tech rehearsals for a stage production based on it. Let's find home with the help of The Wizard of Oz.

1 comment:

  1. Great, GREAT blog! And excellent review! You have a new follower!