Sunday, August 05, 2012

"City Lights" (1931)

This post was originally intended for the Film Preservation Blogathon but I managed to screw that up. Instead it is here, blatantly overdue, for your reading pleasure.

"Tomorrow the birds will sing."

The Little Tramp, played by Chaplin, encounters a blind flower girl in town and falls head over heels. He wants to help her regain her sight and tells her he's going to pay to get her eyes fixed. Through no fault of his own, she assumes he's wealthy, a fact he doesn't correct. He then proceeds to do everything in his power to make money, from getting a job, to boxing, to asking his rich "friend" for a loan. This rich friend happens to be a suicidal drunk who Chaplin befriends and looks after. The two go on adventures but the fun only lasts as long as the friend is drunk. When sober, he forgets Chaplin and kicks him to the curb. Somehow the Tramp must continue the fa├žade he's created and make enough money to help the girl he loves.

The music at the beginning has a very Gershwiny sound. Very "Rhapsody in Blue" but it says that Chaplin composed the music. Was he copying or emulating Gershwin? "Rhapsody in Blue" came out in 1924 so it's possible.

The introduction of the Tramp is very cute. A Peace and Prosperity Monument is being given to the city and when its unveiled he's found to be sleeping on the uppermost statue's lap. I loved how he climbed down, getting his pants caught on the sword blade and while everyone's yelling at him, the American national anthem starts. Everyone stops out of respect and removes their hats; meanwhile poor Chaplin is just trying to stay on his feet. His fall looks effortless and organic. I didn't however, like the remainder of his descent from the statue. Sitting on the statue's face, hand and putting his foot on the knee felt forced. To me there was no need to draw out the gag, it accomplished its purpose, introducing the audience to the Tramp. Back in 1931 it may have been easier to get away with such stunts but to me it weakened the film and diminished the humour at the beginning of the scene.

At first I didn't like that Chaplin decided any dialogue would sound like adults in Charlie Brown. In 1931 sound was available for films. In fact, this very film has sound, just not anyone's recorded voice. It does work within the context of a Chaplin film though, as the viewer gets the gist of what the characters are saying and it adds humour to the visuals, utilizing sound without making the film a "talkie". Chaplin would go on to do something similar in "Modern Times"

We then meet the love interest, a blind girl selling flowers. She hears Chaplin climb out of a taxi cab and assuming he's a rich man, asks him to buy a flower. A car meant a certain amount of wealth at this point in history as the US was in the early throes of the Depression and things were only getting worse. Chaplin was smart here though as the film shows that he and the audience learn she's blind at the same time. After buying a flower with what are probably his last few pennies he stays to watch her, obviously smitten. I feel her story is a play for sympathy because not only is she blind and poor, she's also an orphan. Why not just give her a dog that gets run over too?

In terms of the technical aspect, it took Chaplin 342 takes to get the flower girl introduction the way he wanted it as he couldn't figure out how to show that she thinks the Tramp is wealthy. And when you consider that Chaplin wasn't on good terms with the woman playing the flower girl, Virginia Cherrill, I just cringe at the thought of that many takes. In fact, their relationship was so volatile that he fired her after she came back to the set late one day and intended to shoot the rest of the film with another actor, Georgia Hale. Cherrill knew that was impossible considering how much footage they'd already shot and said she would come back to shoot the rest of the movie at double her salary. Talk about taking advantage of a situation! All told it took Chaplin more than three years to complete "City Lights".

Later that same day we see Chaplin trying to settle down for the night on a bench. He then notices a man in a suit trying to kill himself in the river. The man is obviously drunk and as he puts a rope tied to a rock around his neck, Chaplin tries to stop him and they both end up in the drink. They climb over one another to get out of the river and I flash back to a very similar scene with Keaton in a change room in "The Cameraman" where Buster's trying to get into a bathing suit. Here though, Chaplin and the suit fall into the river a second time and at this point the gag feels stale. It would have been interesting to see how Keaton would have played this.

This event leads to some great gags in the next scene though as the suit, who is grateful to Chaplin, invites him home to celebrate their new friendship. Chaplin has a slew of very smart alcohol gags that we see on full display: the suit accidentally pours a whole bottle of booze down Chaplin's pants; Chaplin dabs a little alcohol on the back of his neck like perfume; Chaplin resorts to dumping an unwanted shot into his shirt pocket. The two friends decide to go head out on the town. There are several more gags at the restaurant there are several more gags, involving a cigar and a streamer. My problem was I could guess what was going to happen next. I'm sure at the time the movie came out these gags were fresh, but I've seen too many films with similar situations, including a very memorable "I Love Lucy" episode featuring Bill Holden and spaghetti. Chaplin's genius here appears to be his downfall as so many people have imitated him that the joke has become tired.

While his friendship with Suit is on again off again, depending on his sobriety, Chaplin continues his quest to make money to restore his girl's sight. He takes a job as a garbage man which he isn't very good at and then misplaces the soap and washes his face with cheese. Ew. When his garbage job doesn't pan out, he takes up a very short-lived career in boxing during which he tries to fix his match. Cheeky bugger! We also get an awesome scene of Chaplin dancing and dodging behind the referee to escape his opponent during a match. This was the best part of the movie, not only because of the lack of cuts but because of the humour and the choreography involved.

There's another scene at Suit's house involving cops and robbers. Fortunately Chaplin escapes to the flower girl's house and tells her to take his money for her operation. He thinks he'll never see her again and lies to her about it. It might sound weird but at this point I think Keaton's better at emoting with his face than Chaplin. The Tramp is caught and sentenced to jail, during which the flower girl has an operation, can see again and opens up her own flower shop with the money left over from her operation. Their situations now much reverse, the Tramp reappears, looking shabbier than ever and at one point gets angry, which I think he does better than when he's acting happy. The flower girl sees him and laughs, appearing to pity him but then she offers a flower and there's that wonderful moment where she realizes who he is. The ending is very touching though Chaplin's body language seems very childlike, biting a finger and smiling at her

Everyone seems to love this film and it's been lauded by critics for decades as one of the top films ever made. Orson Welles said it was his favourite film, Fellini praised the film and Kubrick rated it among his top ten films. James Agee ever said the final scene was the "greatest single piece of acting ever committed to celluloid". Some even quote this as Chaplin's best movie but I can honestly say that I don't feel the same way. I liked the movie but I believe "Modern Times" holds a far better claim to the title 'Best Chaplin Movie'.

My biggest problem was with some of the gags. Some were too predictable while at other times it felt like Chaplin was overplaying his hand with repetition. This speaks to how influential Chaplin and the invention of slapstick was to the movie industry and how the idea of humour evolves over time. I didn't mind that it was a relatively quiet film but at times it strayed into the saccharine and sentimental which I don't like. There is wiggle room considering this movie is over 80 years old but I didn't enjoy it as much as I thought I would, considering the hype.

Rating: Using my brand new rating system I would says that "This is worth checking out of the library but don't worry about buying a copy to keep."

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