Thursday 13 May 2010

City Lights (1931)

Director: Charles Chaplin
Star: Charlie Chaplin
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

I've become a huge fan of the silent era and the more I explore, the more of a fan I become and the more I learn. In so many ways the silent era was just the beginning of the sound era but in so many ways it's something utterly apart from it, a separate art form that doesn't exist any more and to experience it we have to jump back eighty years. Once it catches you in its spell, there's no going back. Either you'll be hooked or you won't care. I've discovered plenty while exploring the silents, but what surprised me most was that the three great slapstick comedians were not contemporaries. They date back so far that the differences don't seem important nowadays but they really couldn't be bigger. Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd both made their screen debuts in 1917 and didn't do anything particularly meaningful until the twenties had come around. By 1920, Charlie Chaplin had already done everything.

His start in the industry came at Mack Sennett's Keystone studio, where he made no less than 35 films in 1914 alone, including Tillie's Punctured Romance, the first feature length American comedy. A year later he had moved to Essanay where he became the world's highest paid movie star, already one of the most recognisable people in the world courtesy of his Little Tramp persona. By 1916 he had moved again, to Mutual, where he pocketed a million dollars in the process and gained complete control over his films. He didn't just star in them, he also wrote, produced and directed them himself. He started his own production company, he built his own studio and in 1919 he co-founded United Artists with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks Sr and D W Griffith so that they would not just have artistic control of the films they made but financial control too. 1914 to 1920 is a short period but Chaplin used it to redefine what comedy was.

It's a fascinating experience to watch through Chaplin's work in order. Watching those early Keystones is a difficult task. We remember slapstick comedy as being about outrageous stunts, frequent pratfalls and incredible timing, but these Keystone films are more about people with outrageous moustaches throwing bricks at one another and literally kicking each other's ass. Worst of all, the debut of Chaplin's famous Little Tramp character came in what must be one of the least funny films I've ever seen. In possibly the slightest plot of any film ever made, all he does in 1914's Kid Auto Races at Venice is to walk in front of a camera that's filming a road race, again and again. It's not funny in the slightest, just impeccably annoying, and it's more than a little embarrassing to find a comic genius like Charlie Chaplin come across notably less funny than someone like Adam Sandler or Ashton Kutcher.

It's hard to imagine why audiences at the time would roll in the aisles, but Chaplin built on it and continued to reinvent film comedy, introducing previously unheard of concepts like plots, drama, tragedy, even feature lengths. To progress from Kid Auto Races at Venice to The Kid in a mere seven years is an incredible achievement and all the credit is due to Charlie Chaplin. However by the time of City Lights, another cinematic change had happened that had precisely nothing to do with him: the arrival of sound. The Jazz Singer signalled the beginning of the end in 1927 and by 1929 the whole of Hollywood was switched over. The silent era was dead and gone, but Chaplin released City Lights in 1931 anyway, against the weight of the entire industry. This didn't just come along at the very end of the silent era, it was the end of the silent era as far as Hollywood went. It has sound effects and synchronised sound but there is no speech. It's the last hurrah.

Partly this is because the film took over three years to make with a massive 190 days of actual shooting. Surely the biggest reason though has to be that Chaplin knew exactly what he was doing with silent film and didn't want to even attempt to translate his Little Tramp, a worldwide silent icon, into the sound era. In fact, when he came back to the tramp one last time in 1936 for Modern Times he was still resisting the switch to sound, resulting in what silent film afficionados call a 'mute sound film'. Sound to Chaplin at this point merely meant that he got to compose the musical score, along with starring, directing, producing, editing, co-writing and being totally in control of every aspect of the movie both in front of and behind the camera. As a result City Lights may be the most accomplished American silent film of them all, the end result of eighteen years of Chaplin experimenting and stretching the very boundaries of the medium.
Chaplin is, as always, the last name on the credits, listed simply as 'a tramp' and he gets a grand entrance into this 'comedy romance in pantomime'. Politicians unveil a statue called 'Peace and Prosperity' only to find the little tramp curled up on its lap. Beyond this scene being a textbook on the comedic use of space and time, it neatly pokes fun at the industry Chaplin was working in too. The generic establishment statue symbolises sound in film and he promptly lampoons it, literally cocking a snook at it by using the statue's hand in place of his own. This is a silent mirror of the way that he uses sound only to parody speech, such as the squeaks we hear in place of the politicians' speechifying. And with that out of the way, we get on with our plot, which concerns itself with the connection between the tramp and two very different characters: a blind girl selling flowers on a street corner and a suicidal millionaire mourning the departure of his wife.

He makes a huge difference to both of them but tragically neither recognises him until the justly famous finalé. The flower girl, of course, is blind so has no idea what he looks like, even though they fall in love anyway. In fact she has an abiding misunderstanding of who he is from the start, one that he chooses not to correct, assuming that he's rich because he steps out of a car in front of her. In reality he's just finding the only way he can across a busy road and he spends his last coin to buy a flower from her, which he treasures. The millionaire only recognises him when he's drunk because that's the state he's in when the little tramp saves him from leaping into a canal with a heavy stone tied round his neck. When the tramp finally convinces him to choose life he is effusively thankful. 'I'm cured,' he pronounces. 'You're my friend for life.' However when he sobers up he gives his butler free reign to unceremoniously kick him out of the house.

Surprisingly we spend more time with the latter than the former, but everything with the latter is there because of the former. The little tramp, of course, is virtually penniless, unable to help anyone financially without a change of circumstances or a stroke of good luck, and the girl needs precisely that sort of help. One day he finds her missing from her corner and discovers that she's ill and in need of medical attention. She's behind on her rent and the final demand has come, one that she can't pay, so she'll be out on the streets with her grandmother. So our hero tries to find a way to help, partly because he loves her and partly because she thinks he's a rich man. The eccentric millionaire is one way he can acquire money to help her out, given that he almost literally throws money around when he's drunk. Another way is to get a job, so he becomes a street sweeper only to be fired for being late back to work from his lunch break after seeing her.

Given that this is a Charlie Chaplin movie, all these little stories conjure up comedy and tragedy, joy and pain, hope and despair. He gets a job to earn money for her but loses it because of time he spends with her. He takes an opportunity to earn quick money as a boxer in a fixed fifty buck prize fight, assured half the take for losing. Unfortunately his opponent has to get out of town at the last minute to avoid the cops, so the little tramp faces a real opponent instead and is bound to lose. When he reads the newspaper to his flower girl, he discovers a miracle cure for blindness that's free for the poor, if only they can get to Vienna. When he asks the millionaire to help out he does so without hesitation. 'Will a thousand dollars be enough?' he asks. Yet the timing is such that he gets arrested for theft when burglars strike and he calls the cops. After being hit on the head, the millionaire naturally sobers up to forget who his friend even is.
At every point the tramp is built up to hope then torn down to fail, but he never gives up. He is after all a symbol of the power of the human spirit to carry on regardless, one reason why three quarters of a century after his last appearance he's still as recognisable an image on the global stage as Mickey Mouse. What Disney would give for such staying power! At every point he finds opportunity for comedy too and the first time you see City Lights that's what you're going to see. Even when there's sadness there's laughter, whether it be the amazing comedic timing on show at the statue or the street elevator, the choreography of the boxing match or the canal suicide attempt, the visual gags of the unravelling undergarments or the confetti eating. Initially though it may seem disjointed, a collection of skits rather than a single story, but with repeat viewings you'll start finding the subtleties that link everything together and explain why it's all there.

And you can be sure that what's there is what Chaplin wanted to be there. He was an inveterate perfectionist and it's well known that the people who worked with him firmly believed that if it could be done he would have played every role in every one of his movies himself. Of course he was forced to hire some actors in the end, but even those he chose to play the parts he couldn't were deliberately picked for their ability to follow his direction. Rather than hiring an established actress to play the flower girl, and there are plenty who would have fit the role, he cast a twenty year old socialite, Virginia Cherrill, who really wasn't an actress at all though she naturally found more work based on her appearance here. They didn't get on in the slightest but she did exactly what he asked her and it worked, even though he fired and rehired her at one point and one scene, when he gives her his last coin for a buttonhole, took 342 takes to get precisely right.

Effectively if not absolutely truly a silent film, as evidenced by the whistle scene which works entirely through sound, this was a huge gamble for Chaplin. It took him a long while to venture fully into the realm of the sound film, even 1940's The Great Dictator containing silent scenes, but he eventually proved that he was just as much a master with sound as he was without, films like Monsieur Verdoux being highly underrated gems. In 1931 though, he was the lone voice, if you can call it that, attempting to keep the silent days alive with this last anachronism. 'Words are cheap,' he said. 'The biggest thing you can say is 'elephant'.' However the gamble paid off and City Lights proved to be a huge hit. He took Albert Einstein and his wife to the premiere in Hollywood and wrote later in his autobiography that watching their reactions was enough for him to know that the film would succeed.

While it made a substantial amount of money, its true success came later through the opinions of some of the most important names in the industry. Orson Welles listed it as his favourite film. Andrei Tarkovsky listed it fifth, stating that 'Chaplin is the only person to have gone down into cinematic history without any shadow of a doubt.' No less than 77 years after its original release, the AFI named it the greatest romantic comedy ever made. In particular the final scene has been singled out, critic James Agee calling it the 'greatest single piece of acting ever committed to celluloid.' It truly is an astounding end to a film because it has every opportunity to cop out and steadfastly refuses to do so. Perhaps what makes it so amazing is that it isn't just the visuals, which are perfect, but the words which are at once everything and nothing. They are merely ten words, over three title cards, but you can read something different into them with every viewing.

What a difference between Kid Auto Races at Venice and City Lights! Rather than having nothing at all, this film has everything. While I personally feel that The Kid was Chaplin's masterpiece, made a decade earlier with Jackie Coogan, possibly the only actor who ever truly shared screen real estate with him rather than act as another prop for the little tramp, this is what most people cite as his greatest work and throughout his life it remained his personal favourite. Perhaps the most obvious reason is that it was the last American silent film and it manages to stand up as the summation of everything that went before it. It's the perfect gateway drug to the silent era, a great introduction to so many of the joys that will come if only you allow yourself to let go of the belief that it can't be a movie if there isn't sound. Watch this and you'll understand why Johnny Depp could famously say that we're stealing from Chaplin today.

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