Friday, March 30, 2012

Classic Movie Review: Charlie Chaplin's City Lights

As the cinematic rival of the stoic Buster Keaton it was Charlie Chaplin who infused his comedic work with great pathos through his perennial character of The Little Tramp. Chaplin constantly strove for that perfect balance between a lovably goofy man-child and moments of grand emotion. Never did he accomplish the blend so symmetrically and effortlessly it seems as with City Lights. It just might be his best work.

Made after the advent of synchronized soundtracks for films and at a time when studios had completely abandoned silent cinema, Chaplin insisted City Lights remained silent with respect to dialogue, retaining the custom of inter-titles because The Little Tramp was a universal character. He could be understood across cultures, across borders, across languages. Not to mention that every individual around the world who knew the character would have given him, in their own heads, a voice only they knew. To strip that all away would have been to unravel part of what made him so special.


He did make minor concessions to the technology of the day by including an original score (composed by Chaplin himself) to be synchronized with the film as well as occasional sound effects created through the orchestral instruments. The effects give Chaplin the director another layer of comedy to work with in addition to the great balletic physical comedy he’s so gifted at while playing the Tramp. Right out of the gate he gives us a scene that pokes fun at two things at once. A new memorial statue is being dedicated. A couple of political bigwigs get up to speak. The soundtrack gives us some unintelligible squawking, a noise that both skewers the nonsense blather of politicians while issuing a defiant rebuke to audience members expecting spoken dialogue. It’s a brilliant satirical way to launch into a film that was his first feature in the sound era.

City Lights is the fairly simple story of the Tramp falling for a blind flower girl (radiantly portrayed by Virginia Cherrill) who, by a clever little storytelling device, mistakes him for a wealthy man. He becomes a benefactor to her, only able to thanks to a bit of luck in having the opportunity to save the life of a suicidal and alcoholic millionaire. In the character of the millionaire is one place where the film is dated and really shows its age. His alcoholism is played entirely for laughs, providing tragicomic moments when he sobers up and doesn’t remember that during the previous night’s escapades he was friends with the Tramp. His butler is there to watch his back until he’s drunk the following night and saying such flippant things as “You can have my car!” It’s hard to imagine a filmmaker today getting away clean with such a character. Dudley Moore came close in Arthur but there were consequences to his drinking in that film.

From a technical standpoint, Chaplin is not as skilled a director as the masters of the silent era – Griffiths and DeMille, for example. There are occasional editing lapses where the continuity of the cuts create mild confusion. It’s as if he didn’t quite grasp the cinematic narrative grammar established by his contemporaries as when the Tramp peers in a window and the cutaway should show us a point-of-view shot, but instead gives us an angle from within the room. He also relies too heavily at times on inter-titles where more precise and subtle story developments could have been achieved through action alone. That a lot of Chaplin’s earlier work relies less heavily on the titles makes me wonder if this was another concession he had to make to sate the audience’s waning appreciation for silent cinema.

But the heart of the film is what counts. We are filled with joy as the Tramp is anytime he sees the flower girl and smiles wistfully. The final scene has brought tears to the eyes of millions upon millions of moviegoers over the last 80 years. After securing money for her eye operation to restore her sight, the Tramp finds her again many months later. The way he stages the sequence of her first laughing at the silliness of the Tramp and then recognizing, through the touch of his hands, who he is makes the heart weep. Chaplin doesn’t bother with any aftermath or ‘happily ever after’ finale. The whole film builds toward this moment. When it arrives and we are filled with emotion, there’s nothing left to give. Modern movies spend too much time on the come-down after the climax. The tight plot lines of older films can be quite refreshing for that reason.

Chaplin’s true gift is in pulling the audience into the world of the Tramp. He makes you root unquestionably for him. We want him to succeed because he’s got a kind and generous heart. Chaplin makes us see the very best of what we want from ourselves in him and so we empathize very deeply with the character. That’s where Chaplin’s genius was to be found.

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