[Note: this is the tenth film in my 2016 Blind Spot series. For a list of the other well-known or well-respected films I’ve already watched or I’m going to be watching for the first time this year, see this post.]
Talking pictures were becoming increasingly popular during the years that Charlie Chaplin spent writing, planning and shooting 1931’s City Lights, the film that many critics and fans describe as the pinnacle of his career (though I’ll happily state my preference for 1936’s Modern Times). There’s a vaguely-amusing rebuttal of talkies at the beginning of this comedy, with two characters garbling noises into a telephone, which confirms Chaplin’s dismissive attitude to the development at that time; he felt talkies were cynical and faddish, and that if he used dialogue it would undermine his status as a ‘pantomimist’. However, inspired by a trip to Bali, he was actually working on a script at the same time, which he intended to make as a satire on colonialism; he kept it to himself, and the treatment only came to light five years ago when it was discovered in the family archives. Anyway, after a brief look-in the rest of City Lights is silent (except for the score, of course, which was mostly written by Chaplin; his failure to give the Spanish composer and pianist José Padilla a credit for his Flower Girl Theme led to a court case, which Chaplin lost).
It wasn’t unusual for silent comedy stars to write and direct their movies as well as appear in them, though Chaplin’s position as editor, composer and producer of City Lights (in addition to being the lead actor, writer and director) reveals an incredible feat, and is indicative of the great man’s talents and confidence; it also shows just how much power some stars were beginning to wield in Hollywood. The film itself is a rather simple romance involving Chaplin’s famous Tramp character and a blind flower seller (played by an acquaintance of the director, Virginia Cherrill), but their tale is set against the backdrop of a busy city, which makes the small, personal love story seem all the sweeter. It also focuses heavily on the Tramp’s burgeoning friendship with an eccentric millionaire (Harry Myers), to the point where Chaplin probably shares more screen time with his male co-star than he does with Cherrill. But that’s OK, as some of the film’s funniest moments involve Myers: there’s a terrific scene in which the Tramp and the millionaire have a night on the town and drop in to a nightclub/restaurant, where Chaplin proceeds to do interesting things with a bowl of spaghetti. The pair exhibit some great comic timing as chairs are pulled away from under the bums of various patrons – including our two hapless heroes – just as they go to sit down.
The very best parts of the film also involve Cherrill, though, and are less reliant on Chaplin’s physical humour. I’ve yet to see a more moving finale in a silent comedy than the one that’s included here, despite the best efforts of similar shy, romantic goofs like Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, et al. The Tramp has by this point endured a prison sentence which he didn’t deserve, and bumps into his true love on the street; since he last saw her she has paid to have medical treatment using money that he passed on, and her sight has been restored, though it is his touch that she recognises. It’s a lovely moment in which the co-star gets to shine, and one can understand why Chaplin went to the trouble of reshooting the ending after production had ended, in order to get it right. It’s hard to find much fault with the way the romance plays out, except to say it obviously falls in line with the gender politics of the era, and it’s hard to find anything of note that’s wrong with the rest of the film: the meandering, time-filling scenes that feature Chaplin alone and wandering the city are top draw, and the extended boxing match sequence – which really has little bearing on the love story or anything else – is a joy. I could watch him on this form all day long, and every twitch of the moustache and blink of the eyes works wonders.
Directed by: Charlie Chaplin.
Written by: Charlie Chaplin.
Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Harry Myers, Al Ernest Garcia, Florence Lee, Hank Mann.
Cinematography: Gordon Pollock, Rollie Totheroh.
Editing: Charlie Chaplin.
Music: Charlie Chaplin, José Padilla.
Running Time: 83 minutes.