d. Charles Chaplin / USA / 87 mins.
In 1931, nearly four years after spoken dialogue had been introduced into Hollywood cinema and to the public, City Lights didn't have to be silent. Indeed, Charles Chaplin is rumored to have considered making it as a "talkie." The film has technological advancements that were impossible in his earlier work (specific sound effects, namely), but Chaplin held his ground and defiantly included no speaking. Some have called it stubbornness, arrogance, or artistic elitism on Chaplin's part that he released a silent film so far into the talking age; but just as directors continued producing films in black-and-white after the popularization of affordable color, I think it best to view Chaplin's decision through the lens of artistic vision. It could have been anything: maybe he was afraid and unready, maybe he knew his Tramp character worked best as a mime, maybe he wanted one more shot to make an unforgettable silent film – whatever it is, it doesn't matter. City Lights is not only a better film because it is a silent, it is one of the all-time great silent masterpieces.
It is the film most frequently submitted as Chaplin's magnum opus, but I won't be lured into a ranking of it against his many other excellent productions. Unlike other directors whose works seemed to ebb and flow throughout the course of their careers, Chaplin's work defies expectation and builds into a tsunami. Quality aside, I will say it is not as well balanced as The Gold Rush and it is not as funny as Modern Times. Without a doubt, however, City Lights is the director's greatest foray into pathos, and whether that makes it his best film overall is up to the subjective viewer. (It's the only film of his that makes me openly weep; more on that in a moment.)
It is a remarkable in many ways, most of all in its cohesiveness, obtained somehow in a blur of disparate elements. Chaplin's creative method could be mildly described as chaotic – often he used only outlines and wrote his films as he was in the process of filming them, a fact that makes them all the more amazing – and City Lights is no exception. The film takes numerous detours and tangents, which keeps it lively and fresh and almost a visual representation of how Chaplin thought. In fact, there is something deliberately and self-consciously old-fashioned about City Lights and is undercut consistently with a breathtaking and subtle originality.
What ties it all together is, of course, a love story, perhaps the greatest Chaplin ever wrote. The Tramp falls for a blind girl (Virginia Cherrill) who sits on the sidewalk selling flowers. He is poor but occasionally living the high life in the company of a drunken millionaire (Harry Myers) whose life he saved. The millionaire befriends and rejects the Tramp, only to befriend again and reject again – all depending upon how sober he is at the time. The Flower Girl mistakes the Tramp as someone who is wealthy (Chaplin's politics begin to show here: she and the millionaire both "see" the vagabond Tramp as the person they want him to be instead of the person he is), and he vows to pay for her to have a procedure performed that promises restore her sight. Along the way, as he struggles to earn the money for her. He works a rather stinky job cleaning up after horses and elephants, performs a deft-footed boxing match (where he uses the referee as a blocking device to hide himself from his brutish opponent), and feuds with the millionaire's butler and the police.
Chaplin was a perfectionist, and it's fitting that the film called his best had him acting his worst behind the scenes. Production was brought to a standstill because he couldn't figure out a plot device that would make the blind girl think the Tramp was wealthy (it would be the sound of an expensive car slamming shut), and he shot the scene 342 times. Cherrill, with whom Chaplin did not have a happy working relationship, was fired halfway through, and he intended to re-shoot the film with the romantic interest from The Gold Rush, Georgia Hale. (It proved too expensive; he was forced to rehire Cherrill.) In the end, his hard work saw success; although the film was silent in an area of dissonance, it was still widely popular with audiences. In 1931 it was not honored with a single Academy Award or even a nomination, but it has won a more telling and more valued award: continued appreciation over time.
And now, the ending: what more could a person ask for? I don't wish to discuss it in depth here, even though the film is more than 75 years old and it is one of the most talked about and imitated endings in the history of cinema. I find it regrettable that many reviews of City Lights are accompanied by a screen-shot of the ending; even if you've never seen the film, just by catching sight a screen-shot you can figure out what's coming. (I don't know how we expect to get people interested in silent films if we go around spoiling the endings for new viewers.) But what I can say about the ending without ruining anything is that is a tidal wave of impeccably staged emotion. While there is no doubt that film is sweet throughout, I don't think I've ever watched the end without suddenly crying with the happiness of it all.
And again, it's the silence that makes it what it is. Imagine for a moment that Chaplin had moved into sound too quickly, forcing the final confrontation between the Tramp and the Flower Girl to be dependent upon dialogue instead of pure pantomime. It doesn't require a scholarly approach to realize the power would be zapped from the frame. By the time "The End" fades into view and you're wiping away the tears away with the edge of your palms, it's not difficult to see why City Lights is rightly touted as the tour de force that it is.
21 September 2008
d. Charles Chaplin / USA / 87 mins.