Wednesday, 2 July 2008

City Lights (1931, US, Charles Chaplin)

Silent comedy has always been a genre I know very little about - only seen the odd Chaplin film but never a Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton. 'City Lights' was the first film Chaplin made during the sound era, and whilst he was under pressure to make 'City Lights' as a talkie, he had enough clout to film it as a silent though inventively compromised by inserting sounds, rather than speech. The "speech" in the film's opening scenes as a statue is being unveiled (which Chaplin's tramp is sleeping on) was recorded by Chaplin through a comb.

Described in the first titles as a "comedy romance in pantomime", the film is all this and more, both sentimental and funny. Chaplin's tramp, a clumsy and comical figure who constantly contrives to find himself in farcical circumstances meets a blind girl selling flowers in the street, and she mistakes him for a millionaire (she heard the door of an expensive door slam as he walked by), and that's pretty much the entire narrative. Saving an actual millionaire from drowning (which involves Chaplin almost drowning himself trying to save him), he gets access to that lifestyle, thus making his pursuit of the blind girl a bit more credible - he borrows the millionaires car and gives her a ride. Hilariously though, the millionaire only befriends Chaplin when drunk; when sober he remembers nothing.

Upon discovering that the girl's family is about to be evicted and also that she could have her sight restored with the right amount of money, Chaplin seems to address both these issues - the millionaire gives him the money but of course when he's sober forgets and assumes Chaplin has robbed him. Although the girl now anonymously has both her problems resolved, Chaplin went to jail. Upon release, he then seeks to find her in a conclusion that is remarkably sentimental by modern standards but is exceptionally moving with a killer final line that would have even the toughest and most cynical amongst us in bits. 'City Lights' is a staggering one man achievement, rightly considered one of the best comedies of all time because it balances the light hearted humour with emotional resonance. The pratfalls and humiliations Chaplin endures have a genuine romantic purpose to them, and the film isn't without it's darker moments, notably when Chaplin is arrested for theft and sent to jail. Plus there's also the issue whether the blind girl who now has her sight will fall in love with a tramp who's not what he appeared/claimed/was assumed to be. 'City Lights' is a comic masterpiece. Superb. 5/5

1 comment:

Shane said...

My favorite movie, thirtyframesasecond...I'm not through every entry on your blog...have you gotten to Buster Keaton yet? I'd definitely recommend The General, the short (50 minutes?) Sherlock Jr., and Steamboat Bill Jr. Oh, and The Cameraman. I love Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd.