Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Obligatory End-Of-Year Top Ten List

"But Mr. Monkey," I hear so often on the street, "while it's true our lives rise and fall on the rhythms of your wonderful prose poetry, a movie blogger can never aspire to the status of cultural icon without posting an end-of-the-year top ten list." And even as I'm running away, I'm thinking, yes, it's probably true, I must write an end of the year top ten list. So as the decade of the 'Naughties comes to a close, I give you a list of the ten best movies I not just mentioned but wrote full essays about this year (thus the absence of The Kid, Safety Last, Sherlock Jr., Metropolis and many other).

As always, my choices are a reflection of my values and are in no way binding on the universe as a whole.

In chronological order and suitable for mounting on your refrigerator door:

The Thief Of Bagdad (1924)—Loosely based on stories from One Thousand and One Nights, The Thief of Bagdad is the tale of a pickpocket who falls in love with a princess and who then sets off on a fantastic adventure to prove himself. With the graceful and athletic Douglas Fairbanks at its heart, The Thief of Bagdad is as fluid as a ballet while at the same time serving up a rip-snorting yarn filled with the best special effects 1924 could offer. The American Film Institute voted The Thief of Bagdad the ninth best fantasy movie of all time, the only silent film on the list, and along with City Lights, one of only two silent movies on any of the AFI Top Ten lists. In my opinion, it was the best fantasy movie made before The Wizard of Oz in 1939, and was probably the best action-adventure movie made before 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood.

The Gold Rush (1925)—A 72-minute comedy about a gold prospector in the wilds of Alaska, chock full of laughs, action and some of the most inventive bits of business ever committed to film. I mean, there is something pretty entertaining about watching a man eat his own shoe. This is also the movie that introduced two oft-imitated bits, the one where a starving man thinks his partner is a chicken and the one where Chaplin spears two dinner rolls with forks and does a little soft-shoe with them under his chin. Throw in a little romance, an attempted murder and a happy ending and you've got the recipe for a real good time.

The General (1926)—Not only is it one of the greatest comedies ever made, The General, which [Buster] Keaton wrote, directed and starred in, is also an action film that puts most of its modern counterparts to shame. Based on an incident from the American Civil War, the story—about a lovelorn engineer who finds himself battling spies who hijack his train—features a spectacular chase involving two, then three speeding locomotives, daredevil stunts, explosions, burning bridges, comic mishaps, sight gags, split-second timing, all while Keaton woos the girl. Keaton's famously understated reaction to the chaos around him—he was known as "The Great Stoneface"—only adds to the modern feel of the production.

Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans (1927)—Directed by the great F.W. Murnau, who had previously helmed such classics as Nosferatu and The Last Laugh, Sunrise starts out as a silent era film noir with a beautiful temptress from the city persuading a handsome young farmer to murder his wife then becomes a surprisingly touching story of reconciliation and redemption. The exaggerated story is a prime example of Expressionism, an artistic style that appealed to emotions rather than intellect and influenced not only movies but also painting, literature and even architecture.

The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (1928)—The Passion of Joan of Arc, with its tightly-framed close-ups and unadorned emotions, is quite frankly something I'd never seen before in a silent movie—or any other movie, for that matter—an impossible, anachronistic artifact that proves once again that our forefathers were much more modern that we currently dream of being. More importantly, though, the movie reminded me that telling a story in such a simple and straightforward manner, letting the chips fall where they may, can uncover truths about human nature so eternal that even an eighty year old film based on a nearly six hundred year old historical event can be as relevant and timely as this morning's news. That, I think, is one of the hallmarks of true art, an ability to speak across generations in a unique and unforgettable way. Or leaving all that aside, it's just a great, very watchable movie.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)—This Buster Keaton comedy is a classic fish-out-of-water story, the reunion of a ukelele-playing, college-educated fop (Keaton) with his strapping, working class father (Ernest Torrence). In the course of the seventy-minute story, Keaton contends with shipwrecks, hurricanes and an unreasoning prejudice against French berets to win over his father and get the girl. The most unforgettable sequence of Steamboat Bill, Jr., perhaps the most famous single sequence of Keaton's career, is the one where a cyclone blows a house over onto Keaton, who only misses being killed because he miraculously happens to be standing right where an open attic window allows him to pass right through. Keaton always dismissed talk of his greatness—"How can you be a genius in slapshoes?"—but there's no doubt in my mind, or anyone else's these days, that a genius is exactly what he was. Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert calls him simply "the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies."

All Quiet On The Western Front (1930)—In adapting the novel for the screen, writers George Abbott, Maxwell Anderson and Del Andrews retained the story's focus on the boys who fought and died in the war rather than on the generals and politicians who sent them, a focus that gave the book so much of its power. Director Lewis Milestone made the significant and risky decision to cast young unknowns in the primary roles—and not in a J.J. Abrams, populate-the-bridge-of-the-Enterprise-with-GQ-pretty-boys sort of way either. These are boys, raw recruits who soil their underwear during their first patrol, kids who've never been away from home, never had a drink, never so much as kissed a girl. Played by grown men, you might feel regret at their deaths, but you'd never get the same sense of how much is lost, how much of even the most basic aspects of life they've missed out on as when these parts are played by boys. The effect is tragic and poignant even now almost eighty years on.

City Lights (1931)—Released more than three years after The Jazz Singer's premiere ushered in the sound era, Charles Chaplin's City Lights represented both the peak of the actor-director's brilliant career and a definite exclamation point marking the end of the silent era. A sublime romantic comedy, City Lights was arguably the greatest silent movie ever made, a huge worldwide hit and, along with Buster Keaton's The General, the movie I would recommend to anyone who has never seen a silent movie and is wondering what all the fuss was about. The romance is as delicate as the flower the Tramp carries around with him throughout the movie, and if there's one thing I prize in a romance, it's delicacy. Still, what City Lights mostly is, is funny. Fully fifty-seven of the film's eighty-three minute running time is devoted to comedy, and even those moments of tenderness with the girl are usually punctuated with a laugh—the first meeting, for example, concluding with a dash of cold water in the Tramp's face as the girl rinses a flower pot. A masterpiece of comic timing and invention, on my short list of history's great comedies, great romances, and well, great movies, period.

Le Million (1931)—A musical comedy about a struggling artist, in debt to his landlord and every shop owner in town, who discovers he has won the lottery—if only he can find the ticket. He remembers it's in the pocket of a jacket he left with his fiancee, but she's given the jacket to a beggar on the run from the police and soon everybody is scrambling to get their hands on that jacket. Director René Clair gets great mileage out of the deference we pay to money and the people who have it regardless of their worth as human beings, and we laugh at the contortions of the shopowners to ingratiate themselves to a man they had just minutes before been chasing through the streets. The story is tight and precisely put together, the songs and dialogue are witty and memorable, and the resulting comedy is as light and frothy as a glass of cold champagne.

M (1931)—Fritz Lang's M is a masterpiece of psychology, not just the psychology of child murderer Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre in a performance that launched his career), but the psychology of the audience as well. Using nothing much more than sound and shadows, Lang created a genuine sense of suspense and horror by exploiting a basic fact of human psychology, that we are most afraid of what we can't see. Indeed, the most explicit act of violence Peter Lorre does in M is to the orange he surgically skins with a switchblade. Had it been just an exercise in style, M would still be one of the most effective thrillers ever made, but Lang is interested in more than just a resolution to his police procedural, instead shifting the focus to a study of vigilantism and mob rule. In so doing, Lang raises questions about the balance between freedom and security, justice and efficiency, and the rule of law and the rule of the mob, that are still relevant today. If you watch carefully, you realize nothing much has changed—we've just moved the proceedings to cable television.

Happy New Year!

A Recap Of The Katie Award Winners For 1930-31 And The Year's Must-See Movies

Picture: City Lights (prod. Charles Chaplin)
Actor: Charles Chaplin (City Lights)
Actress: Marlene Dietrich (Morocco)
Director: Fritz Lang (M)
Supporting Actor: Peter Lorre (M)
Supporting Actress: Joan Blondell (Sinners' Holiday, Other Men's Women and Night Nurse)
Screenplay: René Clair (Le Million)
Special Awards: M (prod. Seymour Hebenzal) (Best Picture-Drama); Edward G. Robinson (Little Caesar) (Best Actor-Drama); Marie Dressler (Min and Bill) (Best Actress-Comedy); René Clair (Le Million) (Special Achievement In The Use Of Sound); "Makin' Whoopee" (Whoopee!) (Best Song); Fritz Arno Wagner (M) (Cinematography)
Must-See: L'Age d'Or; Animal Crackers; The Big Trail; City Lights; The Dawn Patrol; Dracula; Little Caesar; M; Le Million; Morocco; The Public Enemy

In retrospect, the twelve months running from August 1, 1930, to July 31, 1931 (in the Academy's odd Oscar season of the day) turned out to be a year of beginnings and endings.

The best movie of the year, Charlie Chaplin's delicate, poignant comedy City Lights was the last silent movie Hollywood ever produced (like the website "Silent Era," I judge Modern Times to be a "mute sound picture"). For all practical purposes, the silent era had come to close by 1929, and only Chaplin's enormous popularity and the brilliance of City Lights could have induced an audience to accept the anomaly of a silent movie in 1931.

1931 marked the last gasp for a German film industry that had given the world F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, Marlene Dietrich, Peter Lorre, Expressionism, and such films as The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, Metropolis and M. Within two years, the Nazis would come to power and those artists who didn't flee or collaborate soon found themselves censored, arrested or murdered. Many German filmmakers, such as writer-director Billy Wilder, emigrated to Hollywood and had successful careers. But the German film industry as a whole would never again have the impact on cinema that it had in the 1920s and early years of the 1930s.

But 1930-31 was also a year for beginnings. James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson burst onto the scene, dazzling audiences in two of the essential gangster flicks of the early sound era, and continuing to dominate the Hollywood scene for years to come. American audiences also became acquainted with Marlene Dietrich for the first time. And in the space of twelve months, Clark Gable would rise from uncredited bit player to major star with tough but sexy roles in A Free Soul and Night Nurse.

I've written at length about all the titles on my list of the Must-See Movies of 1930-31. I leave to you the pleasure of hunting for them through the last three months of this blog's archives.

As great as 1930-31 was, the next twelve months would prove even better, especially for Hollywood which was at last getting the hang of the sound technology that had turned the old order upside down in 1927. On the horizon are Frankenstein, Scarface, Grand Hotel and many others. I'll have the list of nominees for you tomorrow in celebration of the New Year.

Oh, and later today: an end-of-year top ten list! Even the Monkey is not immune to the demands of traditional movie criticism.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Best Picture Of 1930-31: City Lights (prod. Charles Chaplin), Part Four

[To read "Best Picture Of 1930-31: City Lights (prod. Charles Chaplin), Part One," click here. To read Part Two, click here. To read Part Three, click here.]

The Perfect, Problematic Ending Of City Lights (Spoilers Ahead)
It's a truism when I tell you that it's easier to analyze a flawed work of art than a perfect one. In the former, you can see the man behind the curtain, what levers he pulls, what illusions he's trying to create; in the latter, the artist and his intentions are hidden, the machinery underneath so seamlessly integrated into the final product that you're left with the finished work of art and nothing else.

I remember reading an article in the Washington Post some years ago, the reporter reminiscing about his days as a graduate student and a course he took from William Faulkner. Trying to impress the master, the student asked, in regard to Faulkner's story "The Bear," whether the bear was a positive nature symbol, a negative nature symbol or both a positive and negative nature symbol.

Faulkner thought for a while, then said, "That's a story about a bear."

Even the artist himself doesn't quite know what the finished work means as the alchemy of the creative process turns the dross of his intentions into the gold of art.

And of all the movies that I have written about over the course of the last year, no scene has left me more moved and more bereft of words to describe it or analytical skills even to understand it, than the final scene of Charles Chaplin's City Lights.

Here is the scene in question. (My recommendation is that if you haven't seen the entire movie, see it here first. Better yet, rent it from Netflix ...)

It's such a simple scene, just a man and a woman reunited after a long while, a flower exchanged, and then a look of recognition, a smile and fade to black. The appeal of the movie rests on these final moments; indeed, it was this scene Chaplin had in mind when he first began to work on City Lights. I've watched this scene so many times, sometimes in the context of the movie as a whole, oftentimes not, just watching it again to feel the entire movie reduced to a couple of minutes. It's one of the most perfect moments in movie history.

But what exactly does it mean? What does the action imply about what's going to happen to these two people even five minutes later? Nobody quite knows, least of all me.

Roger Ebert sees it as a scene of pure joy, with no ambiguity. "She sees," he has written, "and yet still smiles at him, and accepts him. The Tramp guessed correctly: She has a good heart, and is able to accept him as himself."

James Berardinelli sees it the same way. "The most touching thing about his relationship with the Flower Girl is that, because she is blind, she cannot see his shabby appearance and does not judge him the way others do. ... And, when her sightlessness has been lifted, her attitude does not change. Her new eyes see past the hobo's clothing."

Yet Daniel Eagan in his essay on the movie for America's Film Legacy: The Authoritative Guide To The Landmark Movies In The National Film Registry calls the final scene "a delicate, open-ended encounter that forces the two main characters to erase their dreams, step out of their fantasies, and face up to an unforgiving reality."

Leslie Halliwell, in awarding one of the few four-star ratings in his wonderfully idiosyncratic film guide, noted "Nothing [Chaplin] did before, or after, compared to the closing moments here, a brilliant moment of recognition and loss ..."

And after noting that the girl accepts the Tramp for who he is, Tim Dirks, in his essay for The Greatest Films website, writes "A question arises: How can she possibly love him, now that she can see him? Their social roles are now reversed in this face-to-face encounter—his identity has changed from a benevolent millionaire to a vagabond, impoverished Tramp. She has turned from a poor, Blind Girl into a prosperous beautiful woman."

Me, I've seen it both ways. The eternal pessimist in me thinks, Yes, she's grateful, loyal, no doubt ready to return the favor of financial aid, but you can also see the dream of marrying a millionaire dying in her eyes and it's a painful death. Which the Tramp knew would happen, and he paid to restore the girl's sight knowing that to do so would end his pretense of wealth and with it, any possibility of romance. Yet he restored her sight anyway.

And yet I watched the scene again last night—I don't know how many times I'd seen it already—and thought, "Well, maybe Ebert is right." But if he is, it's not because of the expression on Virginia Cherrill's face, it's the one on Chaplin's, the shy, happy smile as the camera fades to black. If anything can be interpreted in that scene as the flower girl accepting the Tramp for who he is, it's the Tramp's look of joy—presumably because of what he thinks he sees in her eyes. But I don't know since what I see in her eyes is something different. I'm sure the next time I see City Lights, I'll have yet another opinion.

Maybe your reading of the ending depends on who you think is the "light" of the movie's title. Is it the girl, kind, generous, innocent? Or is it the self-sacrificing Tramp? Me, I'm inclined to judge deeds not motives and it's the Tramp's deeds that make the difference in people's lives. He is the city's light.

But does that explain the ending?

As he often did, James Agee, the legendary critic and screenwriter, probably wrote best about the moment: "The finest pantomime, the deepest emotion, the richest and most poignant poetry were in Chaplin's work. He could probably pantomime Bryce's The American Commonwealth without ever blurring a syllable and make it paralyzingly funny into the bargain. At the end of City Lights the blind girl who has regained her sight, thanks to the Tramp, sees him for the first time. She has imagined and anticipated him as princely, to say the least; and it has never seriously occurred to him that he is inadequate. She recognizes who he must be by his shy, confident, shining joy as he comes silently toward her. And he recognizes himself, for the first time, through the terrible changes in her face. The camera just exchanges a few quiet close-ups of the emotions which shift and intensify in each face. It is enough to shrivel the heart to see, and it is the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies."

I think above all, the end of City Lights works like the best music, evoking pure emotion that springs from a place within us beyond the centers of reason. And trying to affix words to a pure emotion is like trying pin a medal on a balloon; the act of doing so destroys the very thing you're trying to celebrate.

Chaplin himself, who was always loathe to discuss his methods and the meaning of his films, concluded only, "It's a beautiful scene, beautiful, and because it isn’t over-acted."

If you've seen City Lights, you no doubt have an opinion, and I would love to know what you think. And if you haven't seen it, maybe it's time to, if only to teach the Monkey a thing or two about the movies.

Best Picture Of 1930-31: City Lights (prod. Charles Chaplin), Part Three

[To read "Best Picture Of 1930-31: City Lights (prod. Charles Chaplin), Part One," click here. To read Part Two, click here.]

The Film's Legacy—And The Filmmaker's
In reviewing City Lights for his Great Movies series, Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert wrote "If only one of Charles Chaplin's films could be preserved, City Lights (1931) would come the closest to representing all the different notes of his genius. It contains the slapstick, the pathos, the pantomime, the effortless physical coordination, the melodrama, the bawdiness, the grace, and, of course, the Little Tramp—the character said, at one time, to be the most famous image on earth."

I would go farther than that. City Lights is not only Chaplin's most representative work, it's also his best, which is saying something considering he also gave us The Kid, The Gold Rush, Modern Times, The Great Dictator, and many other wonderful movies. City Lights was, for me, the best movie of 1931, and arguably the best silent movie ever made, one of two I would recommend to you if you've never seen a silent movie (along with Buster Keaton's The General). It's also on my short list of history's great comedies, great romances, and well, great movies, period.

I'm not alone in my assessment. Orson Welles called it his favorite film. Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky included it in their personal top five. James Agee in 1949 called Chaplin's performance the "greatest single piece of acting ever committed to celluloid."

In choosing it as the best picture of 1930-31, Danny Peary (whose book Alternate Oscars inspired this blog in the first place) called City Lights "a masterpiece" and "Chaplin's greatest film." Leonard Maltin, James Berardinelli, Tim Dirks, and many others, rank it as one of the hundred best films of all time. The American Film Institute includes it on no less than seven different lists honoring different film genres and performances—including the number one spot among romantic comedies. It has been selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. And on and on.

Charles Chaplin was without a doubt the most independent filmmaker in history, directing, producing, financing, writing, scoring, editing and starring in his own movies. After he formed United Artists to distribute his films, he was answerable to no one. If he could have played all the parts in his movies, I imagine he would have—certainly he didn't hesitate to tell his co-stars how to play their parts, choreographing their every move, gesture and expression.

When you look at the dictionary definition of an auteur—"a filmmaker whose individual style and complete control over all elements of production give a film its personal and unique stamp"—Chaplin's picture would serve as a prime, if unreproducible, illustration.

But in assessing Chaplin's strengths and weaknesses, though, where does one role leave off and another begin? As a director, in the sense that we now think of a director—as the master of a three-ring circus, as an innovative storyteller, as an acting coach, as glorified cinematographer— Chaplin was actually fairly maddening. He cast an amateur actress as his lead on a whim; his camera work was if anything more stripped down than it was ten years before; and he took three years to make City Lights, shooting hundreds of takes, drafting the story as he went along, nearly going bankrupt in the process.

Nobody films that way today, of course; you couldn't afford to. Yet perhaps Chaplin's perfectionism was the essential ingredient that made the finished product look so effortless. Maybe that's why we don't often wind up with films as sublime as City Lights.

That said, I think Chaplin's strengths are primarily three-fold. First, as I've discussed here and here, I think he was one of the greatest actors in movie history, and his performance in City Lights is no exception. Two, he was also one of the greatest film editors ever, a much underappreciated art that as much as anything a director or actor does determines the pace and structure of the story. Certainly sifting through the mountains of film he had exposed to find just the right take of a given scene must have been a monumental task.

And three, and maybe most importantly, Chaplin understood his audience, how to please it, how to challenge it, and above all, how to move it to feel what he wanted it to feel. For some, a director who pleases his audience, who creates a work that is "merely" entertaining, is not a director to be taken seriously, as if producing a movie that can entertain all kinds of audiences over the course of decades is hack work. Alfred Hitchcock, thanks in part to the persistent advocacy of directors and historians such as Francois Truffaut, finally managed to shed that ridiculous label; Steven Spielberg, despite two Oscars, largely has not.

No one quite has the temerity to suggest Chaplin was "merely" anything. Instead, he's "sentimental," the worst sin a filmmaker can commit in a cynical age. It means the same thing, though. We now prefer the more modern Keaton, who worked so hard to make you think he didn't care.

But questions like "Chaplin or Keaton" are, for a movie fan, self-defeating in the long run. The question, of course, is not Chaplin or Keaton, it's Chaplin and Keaton and who else?

And while movies, even timeless classics, go in and out of fashion, circumstances inevitably arise to bring them back to the public's attention and remind us why we loved these films in the first place. Maybe now, during this seemingly endless recession and as breakthroughs in communications (such as this blog, ironically) leave us ever more isolated, it's time to rediscover and reassess City Lights in particular and Chaplin in general, and remember what it was like to care so passionately about society's lowest figure while also laughing so loudly at his trials and travails.

[To read "Best Picture Of 1930-31: City Lights (prod. Charles Chaplin), Part Four," click here.]

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Best Picture Of 1930-31: City Lights (prod. Charles Chaplin), Part Two

[To read "Best Picture Of 1930-31: City Lights (prod. Charles Chaplin), Part One," click here.]

A Comedy Romance In Pantomime
City Lights premiered in Los Angeles on January 30, 1931, more than three years after Chaplin began production. Although Chaplin did make some concessions to the sound era—he wrote a score and added sound effects, the first of which serves as his comment on sound movies themselves, speechifying dignitaries who squawk like Charlie Brown's teacher—City Lights was for all practical purposes the last silent movie every produced by a major Hollywood studio.

Chaplin subtitled the movie "A Comedy Romance in Pantomime," which pretty much says it all.

The romance is as delicate as the flower the Tramp has purchased from the girl and carries around with him through- out the movie, and if there's one thing I prize in a romance, it's delicacy. Between the initial meeting (which I wrote about here) and the famous final scene, which I will write about in Part Three of this essay, there are just four other scenes with the girl, mostly brief expository sequences where the Tramp tries to maintain the facade of the millionaire she presumes him to be, first by flaunting wealth he doesn't possess then by helping her first to pay her bills then regain her sight. The Tramp's love is a mere whim—a "comedy romance," if you will—based more on a desire to do the girl the sort of kindness no one has ever done him than on the physical longing or meeting of the minds we ordinarily think of the essential characteristic of romance, but it's a heartfelt whim, one that drives the otherwise episodic narrative.

I think it's this aspect of City Lights, and for that matter the body of Chaplin's work, that is most often criticized as "sentimental." Personally, I don't find it sentimental at all, in the sense that the word implies something false. Indeed, jumping through hoops for someone you've just met is nearly universal human behavior. But the movie does make you feel the giddy, foolish, bittersweet exhilaration of first love, especially an impossible love, one of the most intense emotions we can experience, and the presentation of it here and the necessary response to it is almost purely emotional, perhaps not a way of viewing a film to every one's taste. Me, I like to feel when I watch a movie. If I wanted a primarily intellectual experience, I'd go to the library. (Note: I often go to the library and just finished reading a history of the Mexican revolution if you're worried that I'm an anti-intellectual. But on some fundamental level, I am also a big animal with pants on and feeling comes with the territory.)

Still, what City Lights mostly is, is funny. Fully fifty-seven of the film's eighty-three minute running time is devoted to comedy, and even those moments of tenderness with the girl are usually punctuated with a laugh—the first meeting, for example, concluding with a dash of cold water in the Tramp's face as the girl rinses a flower pot.

The highlight of the movie's comedic set pieces is a boxing match between the Tramp, trying to earn money to pay the girl's rent, and a much larger opponent that turns into a ballet of running away.

Chaplin had experimented with boxing as a vehicle for comedy as long ago as 1915, in a rather raw Essanay short called The Champion (readily available on the Internet). By the time he directed City Lights, he had stripped away every wasted motion until nothing was left but a masterpiece of comic timing and invention.

The remainder of the comedy (as well as the movie) centers around the film's third lead character, billed as "an Eccentric Millionaire" (veteran silent film actor-director Harry Myers) whom the Tramp rescues from attempted suicide. Like the flower girl, the millionaire is also blind—blind drunk, that is. He befriends the Tramp and promises him cars, women and money only to forget him again when he sobers up. Aside from the hilarious suicide scene itself (where the Tramp does most of the suffering), there's a night on the town at a swanky nightclub where the Tramp mistakes streamers for spaghetti, a party, a robbery and sight gags involving touring cars, bottles of brandy that wind up down the Tramp's pants, and much more.

Despite the privations of his youth, Chaplin wasn't bitter at those with money; neither did his childhood leave him in awe of wealth or abashed in its presence. In his films at least, he treated the rich as what they are in life—lucky but otherwise unremarkable people no happier for their good fortune, beyond the freedom from need of the common necessaries, than even the lowliest homeless tramp.

Which brings me to the final blindness central to the movie, that of society itself which blind enough to the misery around it that it can congratulate itself at the height of the Depression with a statue named Peace and Prosperity. And blind certainly to the Tramp, not just to his goodness but to his humanity, even to his existence, in that sense reminding me of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, invisible simply because people refuse to see him.

Much like Charles Dickens, Chaplin saw a society that professed to care about it's poor, it's tired, it's huddled masses, but in fact stacked the deck against them while frittering away its time and money on the frivolous, the material, the ephemeral—in America's case, on jazz, booze and fast cars. And like Dickens, Chaplin could be both funny and scathing about this inequity, with much of his comedy, particularly in City Lights, deriving from the Tramp's accidental admission into the orbit of the wealthy, making a shambles of their ordered lives, and in the process revealing how thin the veneer of civilization really is.

Much to Chaplin's relief, City Lights' combination of comedy and romance was a smash hit, grossing over $4 million in its initial domestic run (the fourth highest total of the year), and was equally successful overseas. Despite critical and commercial acclaim, the Academy bestowed no Oscar nominations on City Lights.

Chaplin's next movie, the equally brilliant Modern Times, wouldn't arrive in theaters until 1936.

[To read "Best Picture Of 1930-31: City Lights (prod. Charles Chaplin), Part Three," click here.]

Best Picture Of 1930-31: City Lights (prod. Charles Chaplin), Part One

Released more than three years after the premiere of The Jazz Singer ushered in the sound era, Charles Chaplin's City Lights represented both the peak of the actor-director's brilliant career and a definite exclamation point marking the end of the silent era. A sublime romantic comedy, City Lights was arguably the greatest silent movie ever made, a huge worldwide hit and, along with Buster Keaton's The General, the movie I would recommend to anyone who has never seen a silent movie and is wondering what all the fuss was about. It's also my choice for the best picture of 1930-31.

(Because this essay is likely to run four thousand words or more, Katie-Bar-The-Door suggested I post it in pieces. Part Two will follow as soon as it's ready.)

Introduction: A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man
Born in London in 1889 to a pair of music hall performers, Chaplin's parents separated when he was an infant and, after his mother was institutionalized, Chaplin and his brother Sydney, like characters in a Dickens novel, were packed off first to a workhouse and then an orphanage. Amazingly, the experience did not leave Chaplin angry or bitter, but it did leave him with an abiding sympathy for the downtrodden, a sympathy that became a hallmark of his movies and was one of the keys to his astounding world-wide popularity between 1914 and 1931—that, and his sublime technique as a comedian, mime, actor, writer, director, producer, you name it.

Chaplin first performed on stage at the age of five, singing the popular tune "Jack Jones" to calm a hall full of drunken customers who had just booed his mother off stage. In 1910, he toured the U.S. with Fred Karno and his "army," a troupe of comedians that included not only Chaplin and his brother Sydney but also Stan Laurel and which (according to the infallible Wikipedia) invented the pie-in-the-face gag.

Legendary comedy director Mack Sennett, he of the Keystone Kops and many others, spotted Chaplin while he was performing with Karno and signed him to a movie contract. While working for Sennett, Chaplin developed the character of the Tramp, not only the single most recognizable figure of the silent film era but perhaps of all movie history. Rising from obscurity to stardom in less than a year, Chaplin departed for Essanay Studios in 1915 where he directed fourteen shorts, then for Mutual a year later where, working with complete artistic freedom, he made twelve of the greatest comedy shorts of the silent era, including One A.M., The Cure and The Immigrant.

Chaplin later called the Mutual period the happiest time of his life and his success there led to a million dollar contract with First National, where he had not only artistic control of filming and editing but also for the first time control over the pace at which his films would be released, freeing him to work on more expansive projects such as Shoulder Arms, The Pilgrim and, most importantly, The Kid, which I would call one of the four best movies Chaplin ever made (along with The Gold Rush, City Lights and Modern Times).

In 1919, Chaplin teamed with three of the biggest names in Hollywood, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith, to form United Artists, an independent film distribution company designed to put more money in the pockets of the people audiences were paying to see and giving those stars more artistic freedom in the process.
Chaplin directed three movies for United Artists—A Woman of Paris, a drama starring longtime co-star Edna Purviance; The Gold Rush, one of the greatest comedies of the silent or any other era; and The Circus, in the words of Daniel Eagan a "delightful, unassuming film" which won an honorary award for Chaplin at the first Oscar ceremony—before turning to his next and perhaps greatest project, City Lights.

Forecasting With His Heart
When Chaplin began work on his next film project, the sound era was already a year old. Chaplin publicly stated that the new medium—for sound was not just a new technology but a new medium—was nothing more than a passing fancy and would be forgotten within three years. As Danny Peary put it in the book that inspired this blog in the first place, Alternate Oscars, Chaplin was "forecasting with his heart," never a good idea when money is on the line. In fact, as we now know, by the end of 1928 sound had but drowned out silent movies and by the time of City Lights' release in 1931, only a handful of directors—Chaplin, F.W. Murnau, Yasujiro Ozu—were still standing firm against the new medium.

Chaplin's choice to film another silent picture was not born so much of arrogance or nostalgia as of anxiety. He was convinced, rightly I think, that the Little Tramp couldn't survive the transition to sound. Once the Tramp began to speak, he would no longer be an Italian or a New Yorker or a Jew or whoever else was sitting in the theater, but would become what in fact he was, a somewhat fussy Londoner with a polished stage actor's accent. Not to mention that Chaplin was largely a pantomimist, his character existing on some impossible ethereal plane. To have the Tramp speak would be to ground him too firmly in the real world, a place he could never actually exist. So Chaplin set out to make his next feature a celluloid monument to the art of pantomime, the future be damned. If he was going out, he was going out on his own terms.

Chaplin decided the new movie would center on the theme of "blindness," initially toying with the idea of a blind clown before settling on the idea of a blind flower girl. The last scene, which I will discuss below after a "Spoiler" warning, came first in Chaplin's conception, one of the greatest final scenes in movie history. The problem though was not the ending but how to arrive there. The journey would take him over three years.

The first task was to cast the flower girl. As he often did, Chaplin cast his lead actress on impulse, choosing Virginia Cherrill on a whim after spotting her at a boxing match. Although Cherrill protested she was not an actress—aside from City Lights, she's best remembered now as Cary Grant's first wife—an amateur was exactly what Chaplin wanted, preferring to mold his co-star's performance without her having to unlearn someone else's methods.

Indeed, Chaplin preferred to mold everyone's performance in his movies, right down to the expressions of the extras in the background, acting out everyone's part and then shooting the scene over and over until everyone had copied him to his satisfaction.

Nor did Chaplin work from a script, preferring instead to draft the story on the set, using film the way another artist might use a scratchpad, to doodle ideas, taking dozens, sometimes hundreds of takes of a scene as he worked out the precise action. Whether measured by today's standards or those of the time, Chaplin's work methods were borderline insane, taking months and even years to complete a movie and spending what for the time was an enormous amount of money. These methods might have made sense when, for example, he was spending First National's money to produce The Kid and was all but certain of a blockbuster hit; when he was shooting City Lights, he was spending his own money—some $2 million—with no guarantee the finished product would ever find an audience. It was a tremendous risk.

The first meeting between Chaplin's Tramp and Cherrill's flower girl was the key to the movie. Crossing the street, the Tramp cuts through a parked limousine where the Girl sits on a park wall. She hears the slamming of the door as Chaplin gets out and mistaking him for the limousine's owner, asks him to buy a flower. If anything, the Tramp is annoyed but he can't resist her smile and gives her his last dime, not realizing until he knocks the flower from her hand that she is blind. When the real millionaire climbs into the limo, the girl mistakes the slamming door for her customer's exit and in order to preserve the illusion—for the girl's sake, rather than his own—the Tramp sneaks away to watch her from a distance. He's hopelessly smitten and the unfolding love story provides the narrative backbone upon which Chaplin would hang some of the best comedy bits of his career.

It's a sweet, simple scene and in the finished film, takes up just under three minutes of screen time. In reality, the sequence took 342 takes spread out over two years as Chaplin struggled to find the right device by which the blind flower girl would mistake the Tramp for a millionaire.

Using outtakes from Chaplin's own archive in their documentary Unknown Chaplin, Kevin Brownlow and David Gill show the director trying first one trick, then another—perhaps something with a watch chain, maybe a second flower, maybe more comedy, perhaps more feeling—Chaplin becoming visibly frustrated as he fails to work out a satisfactory solution. Chaplin kept the crew and cast hanging around the studio for months on end, Cherrill saying later she sat in her dressing room alone reading day after day, as he waited for inspiration to strike.

Cherrill had never made a movie before and made no effort to hide her boredom with the process—for example, leaving the set one day to have her hair done. Her indifference dismayed Chaplin and he eventually fired her, replacing her with Georgia Hale, his co-star from The Gold Rush. Eventually, however, Chaplin reluctantly rehired Cherrill. Not only had he shot too much footage with her to start over, he also realized that Hale (or any other actress he could have cast) was too professional and couldn't help but give the role of the flower girl a third dimension, making her a fully-fleshed human being when what the part called for was a fantasy figure.

That Chaplin concluded this reveals (to my mind, at least) that the audience is seeing the flower girl not as she is but as the Tramp sees her. Both characters are blinded in their own way, she by a physical impairment, he by sentimentality, and both proceed to act based on assumptions that have no basis in reality. This is what I meant in my essay on Chaplin the actor when I said that there's a difference between Chaplin the artist being sentimental and Chaplin the actor playing the Tramp as a sentimentalist. The Tramp may be blind to reality but Chaplin always saw the world as it was.

[To read "Best Picture Of 1930-31: City Lights (prod. Charles Chaplin), Part Two: A Comedy Romance In Pantomime," click here.]

Monday, December 28, 2009

Programming Note: Three Stooges Marathon This New Year's Eve

The Monkey's big brother, "steveparker1," also known in some circles as the father of Plain Chicken, has alerted me to a Three Stooges marathon broadcast in hi-def. For my American friends with cable television, this marathon is on AMC starting at 7 a.m. and running all day and all night, as the man says.

The Three Stooges first made their appearance on the big screen in 1930, in the Ted Healy short Soup To Nuts (although as a youngster, Moe Howard appeared in the 1909 short We Must Do Our Best), and since we're talking about 1930-31 for a few more days, it's entirely appropriate that I mention them here.

Now I admit the Three Stooges are not everyone's cup of tea. Even now, thirty-four years after the death of the last of the original troop, the Three Stooges remain a polarizing force in American culture, dividing movie fans into camps of ardent admirers and equally-committed haters, often (apparently) along gender lines. Whatever your feelings on the subject, however, I commend two Stooges shorts to you, You Nazty Spy and A Plumbing We Will Go. Both are as fundamental to an understanding of film language as Citizen Kane or the movies of Ingmar Bergman—with a lot more laughs to boot.

You Nazty Spy is often credited as Hollywood's first film spoof of Adolf Hitler, beating Charles Chaplin's The Great Dictator into theaters by nine months. A Plumbing We Will Go, featuring Curly Howard's unique approach to the repair of a leaky shower, serves both as a study of the limited value of good intentions as well as a vivid demonstration of the law of unintended consequences, and as such, should be required viewing for building contractors and politicians of every ideological stripe.

The latter airs, as far as I can tell, at 9:43 p.m. EST.

Both coincidentally are from 1940 and I will revisit them in the future, no doubt with a Special Katie Award in hand.

By the way, we're on a tight blogging schedule this week here at the Monkey. Tomorrow I'm posting the essay for best picture of 1930-31, Wednesday I give you a recap of 1930-31, Thursday promises a top ten list of sorts, and Friday (the New Year) will bring the Katie nominees for 1931-32. In the meantime, I also have to walk the dog, go to the cleaners and make dinner.

Better get busy.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Latest Poll Results

The latest Monkey Movie poll question was "Looking ahead to 1931-32, four movies will definitely get Katie nominations for best picture—À Nous La Liberté, Frankenstein, Grand Hotel and Scarface. Which movie should get the fifth nomination?"

The results were decidedly inconclusive.

Of the eleven choices, three—The Guardsman, Marius and The Smiling Lieutenant—failed to garner any votes at all. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde got two votes and four others—The Champ, Mädchen In Uniform, The Music Box and Shanghai Express—copped one each.

That left Tod Browning's cult classic Freaks, the Marx Brothers' Monkey Business and a pre-Code version of the tragic romance Waterloo Bridge tied with four votes apiece.

What to do, what to do?

Well, I'll tell you. There's no rule that says I have to limit myself to five best picture nominees. The Academy certainly doesn't. It nominated eight movies for best picture in 1931-32 and as you probably know, it's nominating ten this year. No reason I can't nominate seven. So those of you who voted for Freaks, Monkey Business and Waterloo Bridge, rejoice, they're all getting best picture noms. As for those of you who voted for one of the other movies, some of them will receive nominations in other categories and I think I can safely promise I will be writing positive reviews of all of them. Something to look forward to—or not, depending on what you think of my essays.

I plan to announce all the the nominees for 1931-32 on New Year's Day. Stay tuned.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Seasons Greetings ...

... from Katie and the Monkey.

The black bird, by the way, was a gift ten years ago, I think it was, from my good friends "bellotoot" and "Mister Muleboy" (not their real names). Since then, I've lugged that loveable hunk of statuary across the Atlantic and through three houses and now it sits on a bookcase in my office reminding me that, in the words of Clarence the angel, "No man is a failure who has friends crazy enough to buy him a replica of the Maltese Falcon!"

God bless us, every one.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Gangland Double Feature: Little Caesar And The Public Enemy

Let's get this out of the way first:

That, of course, was the famous grapefruit scene starring James Cagney and Mae Clarke from The Public Enemy. Even people who don't know gangster films from the early '30s know Cagney was the guy who'd poke you in the puss if you served him grapefruit for breakfast—and can you blame him? Give me Honeynut Cheerios or give me death, I always say.

But if that's all you know about the gangster films of the early sound era, boy, are you in for a tasty treat. A remarkable amount of violence and amorality showed up on the screen in the years before Hollywood began enforcing the Production Code in mid-1934 and except for a handful of phony disclaimers slapped on the prints in post-production, the purveyors of this fabulous filth were pretty unapologetic about it.

Several gangster pictures made it into theaters between 1928 and 1933 seeking to cash in on the much-publicized bootleg booze wars of the Prohibition era, but I'd call three essential—Little Caesar and The Public Enemy which were released in 1931, and Scarface, which was filmed at the same time but got hung up in endless wrangles with state censorship boards and didn't hit theaters for another year. Scarface I'll talk about at length after the New Year when we get to the movies of 1932, but the other two I've touched on before and now is the time to fulfill all those promises to talk about them at some length.

Little Caesar came first (either in December 1930 or January 1931 depending on who you believe; details are sketchy). Based on Al Capone's rise and fall, the story of a "tough mugg" (as Variety put it) who rises through the ranks to take control of an organized crime racket only to be done in by his own ambition was a familiar one to audiences when the film came out—"same formula and all the standard tricks," said the review in Variety—but Edward G. Robinson as Caesar Enrico Bandello was a sensation.

"Money's all right, but it ain't every- thing," Rico sneers in the very first scene. "Nah, be some- body, look hard at a bunch of guys and know they'll do anything that you tell 'em, have your own way or nothin'—be somebody!" It's this burning ambition that he doesn't yet know can never be satisfied no matter how high he climbs that drives him to murder his way up the organizational chart at an Eastern city's local mob office.

As with every role he ever essayed, Robinson played the part of a ruthless sociopath with utter conviction and was so convincing as a tough guy he was typecast for the rest of his life, a career that spanned more than fifty years and 93 movies, and every actor who afterwards stepped into the guise of a gangster had Robinson's template to deal with. In fact, Robinson was pretty much the opposite of the parts he played—cultured, sophisticated and well-educated, too, originally studying to become a rabbi until he received a scholarship to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Later in life he collected fine art with the same gusto Rico used to collect corpses.

Little Caesar is far from a perfect movie. If you've ever seen a gangster film, you already know the plot; as I mentioned before, even audiences in 1931 knew what was coming. Plus the work of the supporting actors is pretty bad—both stiff and hammy at the same time, and utterly unconvincing. Even Edward G. Robinson, as great as he is, isn't quite up to Edward G. Robinson standards. Maybe the primitive sound technology of the day didn't capture the fullness of his growling timbre, or maybe the cinematographer lit him differently, hiding the deep shadows of his face, but whatever the explanation, Robinson doesn't quite look or sound like himself and it's just enough off-putting to say that if you're somehow not familiar with his work, this is not the movie I'd start with.

Still, somewhere along the line as you journey toward film fluency, Little Caesar needs to be on your itinerary.

A better film, less predictable and centering on an even more explosive performance, is William Wellman's The Public Enemy. If Little Caesar is the study of an ambitious man's rise and fall, The Public Enemy, starring James Cagney as Tom Powers, is a study of the sort of man Rico Bandello would have routinely used to do his dirty work, a small-time thug with no ambition other than to have a few bucks in his pocket and with no scruples about how to get them.

The Public Enemy starts out with a traditional "good brother-bad brother" conflict, a favorite trope of storytellers ever since Moses penned the fourth chapter of Genesis, but then Cagney, director Wellman and screenwriters John Bright and Kubec Glasmon upset our expectations and with them, societal norms, by making Cagney's Tom dynamic and exciting and the good brother (Donald Cook) a shellshocked, underemployed sad sack. Part of this was the result of a last minute casting change—Cagney originally had a supporting part until Wellman saw him in rehearsals and switched him with projected lead Edward Woods—and part is the result of some wicked subversion on the part of all involved, especially Cagney, but in any event, the lesson is clear: crime pays better than a straight job and since either way you wind up dead, what are you waiting for?

As with Little Caesar before it and Scarface after it, the studio forced a disclaimer onto the picture, stating there was no intention to glamorize violence. Unlike the other two, which clearly wanted to bask in Al Capone's limelight, the character of Tom Powers as written really isn't a glamorous guy. He's strictly small-time, not too smart, impotent despite his locker room boasts and has some definite Oedipal issues—the only woman we know for sure he has sex with is an older woman who mothers him, gets him drunk and takes him to bed, an act that so disgusts him, he flees his hideout and leads his best friend into a hail of bullets—what we in the trade call a "loser."

And yet Cagney is so dynamic in the part that, as Chris Barsanti put it for Slant, "you can imagine kids at the time flocking out of the theater and cocking their caps just like him." Maybe the result is at odds with the intent, but the truth is, without Cagney, The Public Enemy wouldn't have amounted to much and the movie and movie history benefitted immensely from Wellman's casting change.

Both Little Caesar and The Public Enemy have been preserved in the National Film Registry and both Robinson's Rico Bandello and Cagney's Tom Powers made the American Film Institute's list of the Top Fifty Film Villains of All-Time.

Yet while both pictures did get noms for their screenplays—an Oscar tradition, by the way, using the screenwriting category to recognize edgier fare—the Academy ignored their stars and directors, and would continue to do so for years to come.

Maybe this shouldn't come as a surprise. The awards were created in part to stave off various attempts at state and federal censorship by creating the illusion that movies were art—"Art" with a capital "A"—stuffy snoozefests that your mom and her preacher could feel comfortable watching. Gangster movies, along with comedies and anything with, say, a nearly-naked Joan Blondell, not only didn't fit this definition of "Art," they were the very movies potential censors wanted to get their hands and scissors on.

So come Oscar-time, Hollywood in the early 1930s had to pretend gangster movies—and the people who made them—didn't exist. After a while, the Academy began to believe its own claptrap, that gangster movies, comedies and naked Joan Blondell flicks were not Oscar worthy. The studios were happy enough to bank the money that Robinson and Cagney brought in—they would have gone bankrupt without them—but God forbid they actually honor them for the effort.

Cagney eventually broke through this hidebound prejudice, receiving a nomination for Angels With Dirty Faces in 1938, but only after proving so versatile not only as tough guy but as a song-and-dance man and even as a Shakespearean actor that the Academy simply couldn't ignore him. Even then, it took a tour de force effort right after Pearl Harbor in what was billed as the most patriotic movie ever made—Yankee Doodle Dandy—to actually win the thing.

Robinson wasn't so lucky. As great as he was, no role ever came along so far outside of his expected range that he was able to shatter the perception of him as "merely" a tough guy actor. Not only did he never win an Oscar, he was never even nominated, not for Little Caesar, not for Double Indemnity, not for nothing. The Academy finally did award him an honorary Oscar at the 1973 ceremony—two months after his death. Too little, too late.

"If I were just a bit taller," he once said, "and I was a little more handsome or something like that, I could have played all the roles that I have played, and played many more. There is such a thing as a handicap, but you've got to be that much better as an actor. It kept me from certain roles that I might have had, but then, it kept others from playing my roles, so I don't know that it's not altogether balanced."

Not exactly the way a tough guy would have put it but then again that's not who Edward G. Robinson was. Too bad it took so long for Hollywood to recognize that fact.