As with the best director award, the contest for best actor of 1930-31 is a virtual tie, so much so I drafted the spine of three different essays as I tried the award on first Edward G. Robinson then James Cagney before settling finally on Charles Chaplin.
In so choosing, I have the benefit of 20-20 foresight—I know both Cagney and Robinson have Katie Awards in their future—but even without that foreknowledge, I have to say, if I had been a voter in 1931 faced with these choices, I would have no doubt looked at both Cagney and Robinson as promising, if exciting, newcomers while regarding Chaplin as an overdue legend who had turned in the best work of his career. Either way, I think Chaplin is the right choice for best actor of the year.
The chief complaint about Chaplin is that he was sentimental—excessively or affectedly appealing to emotions, in his case, pathos and romance. He wore his heart on his sleeve and manipulated the emotions of his audience as well; he is decidedly un-modern in that regard. We prefer our comedy served cynical these days, and when we look back at the great comics of the Silent Era, it's Buster Keaton most now prefer.
It doesn't help Chaplin's cause to mention that what he did—the silent Tramp—is strictly a product of its time and cannot be equated with anything we'd see in a 21st century movie. Cagney, Robinson and Keaton could step right off a 1931 screen into a 2009 movie and without altering their styles or personas become stars today, while Chaplin would have to mine unexplored talents to make the transition.
I've written at length about Chaplin before (and no doubt will again) so I won't bludgeon you with all of it again. But I will say I think when we measure Chaplin strictly in terms of how he fits in or fails to fit in with our current tastes, we're shortchanging Chaplin the actor. That a guy who didn't speak and used title card sparingly could make us feel as well as laugh is a real testament to his talent as an actor. When the fictional Norma Desmond claimed, "We didn't need dialogue—we had faces," it was more a rationalization than a statement of fact, but in Chaplin's case, it was literally true. Charlie Chaplin was to Charles Chaplin (take a look at City Lights' credits to see the distinction) what John Wayne was to John Ford or Robert DeNiro was to Martin Scorsese—an actor who could interpret and perfectly execute the vision of his director as together they made some of the greatest movies in Hollywood history.
City Lights begins as a showcase for Chaplin's talents as a slapstick comedian, reminding you that in terms of grace and timing he was rivaled only by Keaton and Curly Howard. As the picture opens, the homeless Tramp (Chaplin) awakes in the lap of the ironically-named statue "Peace and Prosperity" and proceeds to make a mockery of the dedication ceremony, first dangling on a sword stuck up a hole in his britches, then thumbing his nose at the gathered dignitaries (and clearly at the age of sound movies as well). It was the sort of effortless slapstick he had perfected early in his career, first under the direction of Mack Sennett, then on his own at the Essanay and Mutual studios, as graceful as a ballet dance, as precise as a Swiss clock.
Indeed, to a degree City Lights is a series of sequences —a suicidal million- aire, a dinner at a swanky nightclub, a prize fight between the 5'5" Chaplin and his heavyweight opponent—that would have worked just as well as two-reel shorts.
Chaplin also reminds you in that first reel that the Tramp is not all the sweetness I think we tend to remember him for. He can also be pompous, such as when he admires a bronze nude (or pretends not to), angry (at a pair of newspaper boys who tease him) and cowardly (when the laborer he is taking to task turns out to be well over six feet). His shortcomings work as comedy though as Chaplin juxtaposes the Tramp's carefully-preserved dignity with his straitened circumstances.
But Chaplin also puts on display his gift for pathos and romance when in the second reel he introduces a girl—there's always a girl—in this case the blind flower seller (Virginia Cherrill) who mistakes the Tramp for a millionaire. The Tramp's hopefully hopeless longing links all the episodes together as he tries both to maintain the facade and pay for the operation that will restore the girl's sight.
It's this inevitable development in a Chaplin plot—the introduction of a damsel in need—that I suspect most often leads Chaplin's critics to call him sentimental, and I will concede that in a film such as The Kid (a film that I love by the way), Chaplin the filmmaker is sentimental, equating Edna Purviance's unwed mother with the Madonna, for example. But here in City Lights, I would argue while the Tramp is motivated by sentimentality, Chaplin sees clearly—even in the famous ending which I won't reveal here—a distinction that may not mean much to some, but which is important to me, anyway.
Chaplin the director is aiming for the truth even if the Tramp, like the blind flower girl, can't quite see it clearly. And it's Chaplin the actor who makes this dual vision work.
Postscript: If it makes you feel any better, while Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney turned in exciting, groundbreaking performances in 1930 and 1931, respectively, both had far better work in them, and when twenty years from now all the Katie Awards have been handed out and are gathering dust on the mythical mantlepieces of history's greatest actors, you'll know Cagney and Robinson won for the best work of their careers, not merely the first great performance they gave. In any event, in a couple of days I'll post my notes on Cagney and Robinson as the essay "A Gangland Double Feature."
Credit Where Credit Is Due: The wallpaper at the top of the article is by Sylvie whose work can be downloaded here. The artwork titled "Chaplin vs. Keaton" is by Damian Blake. You can check him out here.