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.]

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