Monday, May 21, 2007

The Greats: City Lights

The Greats: "City Lights"

USA. 1931. Written and directed by Charlie Chaplin; Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Cherill and Harry Myers.

Watching a Charlie Chaplin movie brings us back to a kindler, gentler time when comedies did not have to rely on racy situations and humor as those of recent years have degraded down to. Humor based on lewd dialogue and bodily fluids really give us nervous laughs by testing our thresholds for gross-out material. It takes far more imagination and inspiration to be funny based purely on situation and physicality. It is sad that most people are not willing to explore his golden works or do not even know of their existence.

Charlie Chaplin has earned his place as one of the greatest comedic geniuses in American movies, as he was able to so perfectly modulate situational humor, the physical coordination and the pantomime with honest and heartfelt sentiment. No one could look at a Chaplin movie and state that any single scene of humor is out of line or a sentiment overstays its welcome. And he did this all in the silent film medium even after the introduction of sound into cinema and maintained his famous penniless Tramp character to communicate with physicality and not words.

Chaplin has made numerous classics that have become cinematic treasures. “Modern Times” from 1936 is the best known and may be the most historically significant, as it is shown in schools as an example of a man adjusting to the rapidity of the Industrial Revolution. “The Great Dictator” from 1940 is one of the best satires ever made, which must have been riskier and yet more invigorating back in its WWII days than it is now to poke fun at Hitler. “The Gold Rush” from 1925 was the first film that showcased his perfect control and timing of emotions in a simple story of a man who goes to Alaska to find gold but finds a lady who is more precious than any earthly treasure.

However, the film that is simply the most touching and impeccable among all his works is “City Lights” in 1931. He chose to make this silent film three years after sound was introduced and must have been quite a gamble to make with audiences but Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp is not a man who communicates with words and he made sure to retain that no matter what. In the case of “City Lights,” he avoids unnecessary exposition to tell us how our heartstrings should be tugged and instead, with the aid of his own marvelous musical orchestrations, lets our own imagination and emotions do the work and soar high.

The film opens with a biting jab at the sound film medium. A politician is talking and moving his mouth but we hear gawky, hilarious gibberish (that was recorded by Charlie Chaplin himself) to indicate how boring his speech must be. Then, when a Greco-Roman statue is unveiled in the middle of this public affair, we see the penniless Tramp sleeping on it. There is a fabulous moment here where when he tries to get down, he gets stuck on one of the plaster swords on the sculpture up his holed back pocket and cannot get himself to stand properly when the “Star-Spangled Banner” suddenly comes on.

Indeed, this Tramp character is endearing because he is an outcast that no one else in his world understands. Unlike Buster Keaton’s characters who willingly functioned in society, the Tramp is ostracized by everyone around him despite that he is truly a good-hearted person. On the outside, he is badly dressed with tattered clothes and people laugh and mock at his appearance and he is pushed and kicked around.

In “City Lights,” he encounters two people: a blind girl (Virginia Cherill) who sells flowers and a millionaire (Harry Myers) whom he saves from a drunken suicide attempt. Both of these people are able to see who he really is on the inside due to their “blindness.” The flower girl cannot see what he is really dressed like and the millionaire only accepts him as a friend when he is drunk and throws him out when he is sober.

When the Tramp meets the blind flower girl, he is immediately smitten by her comeliness and charitable generosity as she sits in the middle of the street selling flowers to passersby. She then mistakenly gets the impression that he is really a rich man thinking he has left in his Rolls-Royce, which leads to a priceless moment when she is watering the nearby plants and ends up unknowingly splashing water right at his face.

There are other comic sequences that are some of the greatest Chaplin has ever made that are based on how Chaplin cannot quite act appropriately in social situations. There is the moment when he accidentally swallows a whistle and every resultant hiccup makes a whistling noise. When he steps outside to avoid disturbing a piano performance, one hiccup unintentionally calls a taxi and another attracts a pack of dogs.

Then there is the sequence where the rich man and the Tramp go on a night out in the town and Chaplin is eating spaghetti but catches a piece of decorative string and ends up chewing on and on. The biggest laugh in this scene comes when he spots a couple of Apache dancers and halts it thinking the woman is being harmed (and this sequence is shot in the old-fashioned fast motion to make it look that way).

Of course, the real heart of the story is the Tramp’s pure love for the blind flower girl and how he will use his camaraderie with the millionaire and eventually risk everything for her well-being. This leads to one of the most emotional and cinematically praised endings of all time, which has got to be seen to be believed in its power. In a way, all the pantomime and comedy is setup for this ending that elevates the movie to the next level.

“City Lights” rightly deserves its status as one of the greatest films ever made. No other director has ever used such simplicity and pure emotions to move us and make us laugh and cry in the movies. Charlie Chaplin is a true comedic genius and “City Lights” is his most signature masterpiece.

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