Friday, January 29, 2010

Film #7: City Lights (1931)

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Times Previously Viewed: 1 (about 10 years ago)

The Story (in which I unabashedly spoil the hell out of the movie for you. Fair warning):

A waddling little transient wanders around a city (London, maybe?) and meets a poor, blind flower girl. Immediately smitten, he determines to make enough money to pay for an operation that will restore her sight, while she believes him to be a well-to-do gentleman caller. He bounces around the town from job to job, including street sweeper and prize fighter. He mostly cruises through a seesaw friendship with a sometimes-drunken, sometimes-sober rich fellow, who loves the tramp when besotted and discards him when sober.

In the end, the little guy scrapes together the dough he needs, passes it on to the flower girl, and, through a mix-up, is sent to jail for the better part of a year. Once released, in straits more dire than ever, he finds the flower girl hale and hearty, sight restored and managing her own upscale flower shop. All the while, she has been waiting for the return of her mysterious benefactor, assuming that he was a wealthy Samaritan. When she sees and understands that her true champion was and still is penniless, she accepts him all the same.

Take 1. My Gut Reaction (done after 1 viewing, before any research):

Eh. Buster Keaton's way better. I know Chaplin's place and all, but Keaton kicked his ass. I certainly don't hate Chaplin or his movies, but City Lights, like the other films of his that I've seen, is flat by my standards. It's not hard to recognize the cleverness and choreography that goes into a lot of the gags. Probably the best-known in this film is the boxing match when the little tramp is almost out of ideas and takes an offer to fight for the cash he needs to help his blind lady-love. Here it is:

Pretty nifty, and the gags with the bell ringing are actually pretty good. The problem was that most of the scene got a bit monotonous for me, almost to the point that I wanted the guy in the white trunks to punch the tramp's head off of his body and see the credits roll. OK, maybe it wasn't that monotonous, but the only part during this sequence that made me laugh was the bell-ringing gag (after the 3:45 mark in the above clip), and this was one of only about three moments in the whole film that elicited so much as a chuckle out of me.

Why so few laughs? I think one part of it had to do with being able to see a lot of the visual jokes coming from a mile away. Maybe they were fresh back then and have been imitated so often that I could anticipate them. Whatever the reason, part of the comedy of such things is that they catch you off-guard. Very few things in this movie caught me off-guard or offered pleasant surprises. Sure, they took wit to envision and skill to execute, but so does synchronized swimming, and I don't want to watch that, either.

Probably the other aspect that was lukewarm to me was the story. It's pretty sappy, when you get right down to it. Sure, it's sweet (I'm not totally without a heart), but come on. A poor, pretty, blind flower girl?! Man, that's just unimaginative. Why not just bring out a little kid with polio and on crutches while you're at it?

And yet, there was a moment at the end when I was actually intrigued as to what would happen. (The clip below shows you the well-known end of the film). Keep in mind that the girl has just had her sight restored, thanks to the tramp's love and hard work, and he's just gotten out of the clink after serving several months due to a mix-up related to his getting the money. When she grabs his hand, the look that passes between them is actually the greatest thing in the film, and actually choked me up:

So yeah, Chaplin actually got me on that one, the bastard. Still, we're almost left to wonder, what happens next? It seems to me that she accepts him and that things will work out for the better. And to me, that ending equals a missed opportunity. At the risk of being a Monday morning quarterback, I felt that the story would have been exponentially more powerful if the tramp had simply seen her, taken joy from her restored sight, and then walked away. This would have been an act of pure, selfless love on an almost mythical level. Had it ended this way, I would probably still be crying right now, and would have loved the film all the more for it.

In the end, it's a film that has a few good moments, but one that left me wanting to re-watch Buster Keaton's Our Hospitality. Keaton's gags were funnier, he actually did impressive stunts, I find his demeanor far funnier than Chaplin's wiggling, waddling gait, and he steered clear of the cheap sentimentality that Chaplin employed. Both played characters who were somewhat clueless in their films, but Keaton seemed to have more gumption.

I doubt that I'll go out of my way to watch any more Chaplin movies. I can see why he was big in his day, but he doesn't provide the laughs I need in my comedies. Sorry, Charlie. (Couldn't resist that one. Apologies.)

Take 2. Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (done after some research on the film):

The bonus disc with City Lights is a bit weak. It has some general commentary on the film's place in history and its merits, and there's a pretty good little piece by Peter Lord (producer of Wallace & Gromit, Chicken Run, et al). The rest is just outtakes, behind-the-scenes footage and other random tidbits. Here's what struck me from it:

In seeing some of the scenes again, I found that I liked some of them a bit more. The boxing scene actually had a bit more charm, and some of Chaplin's delicacy didn't grate on me as much. Lord did make a direct comparison between Chaplin and Buster Keaton, pointing out how Keaton never tried to deal with love the way Chaplin did. I see his point, but I still like Keaton better. While Chaplin does have a certain warming, disarming charm, I think I prefer the straight comedy of Keaton.

The final scene. By all accounts, this is what makes this film an absolute classic. They show it again several times on the extra DVD and its still touching. Even Chaplin, much later in life, maintained that it was the best, most touching piece of acting he had ever constructed and executed. Agreed.

One final note. This film was released when the spoken film era had, in a mere four years, completely killed the silent film, in effect. It simply wasn't being done anymore. And yet, Chaplin scored a massive hit with City Lights (here's the original TIME magazine review from 1931). He felt that his little tramp character, who was already known and loved throughout the world, would alienate his non-English speaking audience by speaking in English. Being an English teacher, I find this exceptionally genius.

Even though I don't love the film myself, I think its success and endurance are phenomenal, and a testament to Chaplin's ability as a visual storyteller who knew how to connect with his audience. It's also a very fitting film to end the silent segment of the ALL-TIME 100 list.

That's a wrap. 7 films down, 98 to go.

Coming Soon: King Kong (1933):

What better way to transition from the silent films to the talkies than by going from Chaplin's adorable little English vagrant to a 60-foot high, rampaging gorilla?

Hail to the King, baby.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.