31 Jan 2017

Fifty greatest films: City Lights

From Widescreen, 4:46 pm on 31 January 2017

Chaplin still doesn’t do it for Dan Slevin, and he’s not sure if he ever will.

Chaplin’s Tramp is finally seen by the Flower Girl at the end of City Lights.

Chaplin’s Tramp is finally seen by the Flower Girl at the end of City Lights. Photo: Criterion

#50= City Lights (1931)

Unless you are a complete and utter silent film aficionado, film fans have to choose between Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. You can’t love both. It’s like the Beatles or the Stones.

I’m sorry to say that I’ve always been a Keaton man myself. Perhaps it was the first exposure to Chaplin, on Sunday afternoon British television watching these jittery alien figures, moving too fast, taking up a screen that should have had more football on it. I didn’t discover Keaton until I was a bit older, ready to appreciate him.

Luckily for this project, Keaton has an entry much higher up the league table but for now we take a look at the film that many people think of as Chaplin’s silent masterpiece – equal 50th on the Sight & Sound list – City Lights.

Because of my early Chaplin prejudice, I haven’t made much of an effort to explore the man’s catalogue. I know he was a genius, everyone tells me so, but I’ve seen enough clips from his most significant silent works – The Gold Rush, The Kid, The Immigrant – to know that he’s just not my cup of tea.

A challenge is a challenge, however, so my wife and I set aside an hour and a half to give the little tramp his due.

Before the prize fight goes pear-shaped for the Tramp.

Before the prize fight goes pear-shaped for the Tramp. Photo: Criterion

In City Lights, Chaplin’s tramp – the character that made him famous based on a music hall clown act he’d been working on since childhood – meets a blind flower girl who mistakenly believes him to be a rich man. A chance meeting with a genuinely rich (very drunk and very generous) man that evening allows the Tramp to believe for a while that he too is wealthy and that maybe he and the flower girl can have a life together – once he has paid for her sight to be restored.

It turns out that the rich man is considerably less generous when he wakes up with a hangover and several times he throws the Tramp out on the street only to welcome him back when in his cups again that night. Very fickle and very confusing for our naïve young romantic.

When he realises that the rich man’s generosity is not the answer to his prayers, the Tramp tries some other schemes: prize fighting and – my favourite moment in a film short of them – shovelling horse manure off the streets of 1928 Los Angeles.

His benefactor’s poor memory means the Tramp is accused of stealing the money he was given for the flower girl’s operation. Eventually released from jail, he is a shadow of his former self. Even his rags have holes in them now. But his gift has saved the girl’s sight, she has opened a successful florist shop and they are reunited when she recognises the touch of his hand.

The Tramp is arrested for the theft of the rich drunk’s wallet.

The Tramp is arrested for the theft of the rich drunk’s wallet. Photo: Criterion

It’s sentimental rubbish, frankly, with extended – often repeated – episodes of slapstick routines, many of which are like a greatest hits collection from his most popular early short films. The difference here is the scale and precision of those routines. His physical prowess is uncanny, making the extremely difficult look effortless.

But, there’s something about Chaplin and the Tramp that doesn’t connect with me. This style of comedy is rooted in a tradition that was old fashioned even then. City Lights came out in 1931 and Chaplin was still resistant to making films with dialogue (he was experimenting a bit with synchronised sound and he proved to be a gifted composer of film music) and the opening title card of the film describes it as a pantomime.

Chaplin’s ingratiating sentimentality in City Lights doesn’t feel as modern to me as Keaton’s deadpan. For some reason, Keaton’s expressionless comedy seems to be more layered.

Perhaps Chaplin’s later work will appeal to me more, once he discovers the political edge that would get him into so much trouble later on.

City Lights is out of print on DVD in New Zealand but better rental stores should still have a copy. An HD version is on sale or rental via iTunes.

The Sight & Sound Top 50 project is intended to encourage more attention to the greatest films of the past – in the same way we still read old books and listen to old music we should be appreciating old movies.


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