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Sunday, May 11, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: City Lights (1931)

Director: Charles Chaplin
Starring: Charles Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Harry Myers

There’s a reason why Charlie Chaplin remains one of the most recognizable figures in film, and it isn’t simply because he played The Little Tramp so often. Chaplin was a multi-talented artist both in front of and behind the camera and knew instinctively how to play on the audience's emotions, and how to draw the comedy out of any situation. He is to comedy what Astaire is to dance, and what Hitchcock is to suspense. What you get from all three is craftsmanship and execution without compare.

City Lights finds the Little Tramp pretending to be a millionaire after a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) mistakes him for one, and after a chance encounter with an actual millionaire (Harry Myers) enables him to pull off the act. His relationships with the flower girl and the millionaire serve to separate the film into two spheres, each with its own distinct tone and mood. His scenes with the flower girl are the human side of the film meant to tug at your heartstrings – he finds someone more vulnerable than himself and is determined to take care of her by taking odd jobs (including entering a prize fight, which results in one of the film’s best uses of physical comedy) in order to pay her rent so that she and her grandmother don’t get evicted, and in order to pay for the surgery which will allow her to see. In contrast, his scenes with the millionaire are the comedy side of the film, meant simply to make you laugh. They meet when he stops the millionaire from committing suicide (this scene, too, provides some absolutely fantastic physical comedy). They drink together and have parties, much to the consternation of the millionaire’s butlers. When the millionaire sobers up, he kicks the Tramp out. Later, drunk again, he welcomes his “friend” back into his house. The recognitions and disavowals are significant not only from a structural standpoint, but also in the way that it connects the two sides of the film. Neither the millionaire nor the flower girl can really “see” the Tramp, a character who exists on the margins of society and is openly mocked by other characters in the film. When the millionaire regains his figurative sight through sobriety, he pushes the Tramp away. When the flower girl gains her sight and realizes who the Tramp is, she is taken aback at first but ultimately accepts him, and we know that she has a good heart.

The brilliance of City Lights lies in how well the film balances all of its different elements. There are moments of satire (though the film is essentially silent, it opens at a political rally where we hear a speech, but the words of the speech are unintellible, just meaningless sounds that convey nothing real), moments of slapstick (following the speech a curtain is raised to unveil a statue and we see the Tramp sleeping in the statue’s lap. His attempts to get down from it take his situation from bad to worse), toilet humour (one of the Tramp’s first jobs is picking up animal waste in the streets. In one scene he manages to avoid picking up after horses, only to turn around and be confronted by an elephant), and just about everything else in the gamut of comedy. Part of the reason why Chaplin films work so well – and hold up so well – on a comedic level is that as much effort and skill is put into the set up of the gag as into the payoff. Chaplin doesn’t just throw a series of potentially funny moments at the audience, hoping that some of them stick. He takes his time constructing the joke and he has a sense for its lifespan, knowing when it has gone on long enough and how to bring it to a successful resolution. He doesn’t let his jokes run themselves into the ground.

Another reason why his films work so well is that he knows how to play your heartstrings without making you resent him for it. It is perhaps because he’s so upfront about his aims (no one mugs for the camera like Chaplin, and no one else would ever get away with it), because he acknowledges that he’s manipulating you, that you let yourself be carried along by the film and allow it to take you where it wants you to go. Chaplin doesn’t pretend that he’s putting one over on the audience or that he’s getting away with something during the film, especially during the scenes with the flower girl. He knows that he’s manipulating the audience, and he knows that audience knows it, so that the audience then becomes complicit in it, as if a pact has been made between himself and the viewer. Very few filmmakers have ever managed to hold their audience so completely in the palm of their hand.

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