Wednesday, September 10, 2014

10. City Lights (1931)

Code-name: 1st rom-com

Writer/Director/Composer: Charlie Chaplin


The Tramp- Charlie Chaplin
A Blind Girl- Virginia Cherrill
An Eccentric Millionaire- Harry Myers
Humble Beginnings

"City Lights" was my second full-length Chaplin film after "Gold Rush." Most of the films I watched on YouTube were selected at random, but these two, I knew I had to see after "Chaplin" briefly touched on their making.

The biopic highlighted one striking fact: this was the first silent film Charlie released after "talkies" arrived in Hollywood. For a number of years, he maintained his delusion "talkies" would never catch on, that they were nothing more than a passing fad.
According to the dialogue, he kept it silent, not just for the sake of non-English speaking audiences, but for his iconic character, The Tramp.
"The Tramp can't talk. The moment he talks, he's dead!" and he proceeded to use the Russian dancer Nijinsky to further his example. Supposing he stopped in the middle of his performance and spoke to the audience, all the magic would be lost.

One interesting part of the making that also made it into the biopic: Charlie was at a loss about how to convince the blind flower girl The Tramp was rich without actual speech. The answer finally came to him when he heard the closing of a car door.
Fun fact: During their "Celebrating 100 years of movies" special, AFI ranked "City Lights" at #11 on their list.
During another special, they named it #1 on their list of top 10 romantic comedies.
Considering everything this film has, they have a valid point. It could even be considered the very first romantic comedy of all time.
Orson Welles once said it was his favorite movie of all time and Woody Allen said it was Chaplin's best work.
It's just a pity that it didn't get any Oscar nominations. It certainly would have earned them.

Plots and Characters

The Tramp is a universal character across Charlie's film repertoire. He's a vagrant and a hopeless romantic willing to do anything for his token love interest.

In the opening scene, we get the debut of Charlie's voice on screen (distorted to poke fun at the town officials speaking at the podium) and his unique brand of hilarity-a combination of slapstick and pantomime. The greatest highlight: he's stuck on the statue, trying to escape, but still pauses to remove his hat for the National Anthem.

Plot point #1 arrives when he meets his love interest. In this case, it's a blind flower girl. The music playing in the background during this scene in the only selection not composed by him (that credit belongs to Jose Padilla).

For any one else, this would have been a difficult scene to sell without actual dialogue. Watch his expression when he realizes that she's blind. The sympathy across his face is so apparent, it grabs you as if the Earth moved. It's pretty powerful and obviously, he falls in love and holds the flower she gave him like he's holding her heart.

As night falls, plot point #2 finds him. A drunken millionaire on brink of a divorce tries, unsuccessfully, to commit suicide. The Tramp talks him out of it, but not before they stumble in and out of the water he tried to drown himself in multiple times.

The two of them become fast friends, go out on the town after a few drinks and the millionaire even lets him keep his Rolls-Royce.

Here's the rub that causes confusion throughout the picture:

the millionaire only recognizes The Tramp when he's drunk.
So one can imagine all the shenanigans that transpire as a result of this. The drunken scenes are comedic while the sober scenes range from frustrating to dramatic.

When the girl falls ill and her grandmother falls behind on their rent, The Tramp does everything he can to remedy the situation.

To his credit, while trying to making sense of his situation with the millionaire, he tries to get money honestly by getting part-time work. Unfortunately, he shows up late one day and is inadvertently fired.

My personal favorite scene is the boxing sequence. He gets involved in this after someone offers him $50 to stage a fight. This plan goes array when the man he's meant to fight flees as there's a warrant out for him, and he winds up fighting for real.

So many amazing compositions span across the film, almost characters themselves, some we're lucky enough to hear multiple times. The music playing in the locker room prior to the boxing match is my favorite.

As for the match itself, it's the most fun I have watching this movie. The only thing to come remotely close is the opening scene. Just the way it's choreographed and written, I would recommend going on YouTube to see. As if I couldn't recommend this film any higher.

He eventually does get the money he needs for the girl from the millionaire, but again, it's easier said than done and it isn't without its repercussions.

I won't go into detail about the ending because it's one of those special "you have to see it to really appreciate it" moments.

What I will say: it wraps things up really nicely and it was so unexpectedly sweet that I got choked up. Again, it's the magic of Charlie Chaplin at work. Pay close enough attention to the way he carries himself on screen and his facial expressions. The sincerity he brings to this role in this film in particular-- there's nothing else like it.
Final Word

In an interview he did with Charlie Rose in 2003, Robert Downey Jr. talked about how Chaplin accomplished what he did with only his heart and his mind and the body danced around on its own. There was more to this part of the conversation that I can't remember (and can't find on the Internet anymore due to copyright infringement), so I'll paraphrase:

Take away all the special effects, dialogue, Technicolor and you're left with raw human emotion. On those ground alone, I don't think anyone can or has yet to do it better than Charlie Chaplin and "City Lights" shows him at his absolute best.

It might seem like this is just another excuse for some RDJ namedropping on my part, but in this case, it really is worth bringing up. Not just because he almost won an Oscar for playing Chaplin and I can't think of any actor who knows Chaplin better... I honestly would not have discovered this amazing film, this movie star, or garnered so much respect for him so quickly if not for him.

Coming Soon

On my countdown so far, I've included the following movies after only seeing them once:
*I was able to catch these a second time prior to watching the actual review

  • Little Miss Sunshine*
  • Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid
  • Rebel without a Cause*
  • The Hurt Locker
  • Singin' in the Rain
  • The Artist
  • The Great Dictator*
Sure, you could say I'm easily impressed with some of them.
Some had hype behind them, but others were ground-breaking moments I had to address.

My next two films were Oscar contenders movie fans have since said were robbed of the top prize of Best Picture.
They also happen to fall under this category, something I hope to remedy before I do my official write-up. (If all else fails, I can buy them at Target at $5 apiece.
Was I easily impressed with them as well? moreso than the other, I will admit, and that comes in two weeks.

My film for next week, which I really was impressed with, was one of several great 1994 films that lost out to "Forrest Gump."
And to me, it felt like one of the best written films I'd ever seen.

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