Tuesday, September 7, 2010

City Lights (1931)

There may be folks who can remain dry-eyed and hard-hearted during the final moments of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, but take care: Anyone that cynical shouldn’t be entirely trusted.

Chaplin’s silent masterworks, one-reelers and features alike, are continually rediscovered by new generations, and recognized as timeless classics by adoring audiences and fellow filmmakers. (“For me,” Francois Truffaut famously enthused, “they are the most beautiful films in the world. Chaplin means more to me than the idea of God.”) To be sure, Chaplin’s relatively few talking pictures -- especially Limelight (1952) and The Great Dictator (1940) -- also inspire admiration and affection. But his pre-talkie efforts are the wonderments that guarantee his immortality, that ensure his very name will forever serve as an adjective for any attempt, successful or otherwise, to mix pratfalling and heart-tugging in a crowd-pleasing comedy.

The Kid (1921) may be more aggressively sentimental, and The Gold Rush (1925) perhaps is more commonly acclaimed as his magnum opus, but City Lights (1931) is by far the most Chaplinesque of all Chaplin movies, being an absolutely magical commingling of graceful pantomime, knockabout tomfoolery, inspired silliness and – perhaps most important – profoundly affecting poignancy. It’s also, not incidentally, a project Chaplin insisted on shooting as a silent movie long after talking pictures had become the accepted norm.

City Lights begins, of course, with Chaplin cleverly introduced in his familiar role as The Little Tramp, the elegantly mustached gentleman whose shabby attire (derby hat, frock coat, baggy trousers, outsized shoes) is offset by his courtly manner and cane-twirling, hat-tipping panache. And it proceeds with the sort of seemingly improvised but intricately choreographed funny business that many comic actors still emulate. (Check out his classic bits in a raucous nightclub and a high-society party.) In the closing scenes, however, City Lights gradually builds to an epiphany of sweetly painful pathos, leading to a final, indelible image of a man smiling with hopeless longing at a woman whose love he fears he could never – not now, not in a million lifetimes – deserve.

Throughout much of City Lights, Chaplin maintains a lighter and mood, even as The Little Tramp – a.k.a. Charlie -- is repeatedly abused or embarrassed. (Chaplin customarily billed himself as Charles Chaplin for his writing and directorial credits, but always stuck with Charlie to identify himself as star of the show.) When a blind flower girl (Virginia Merrill) naively assumes he is a free-spending dandy, Charlie is so smitten that he resorts to drastic measures -- including, most hilariously, his participation in a boxing match -- to earn enough money to sustain the mistaken identity.

Periodically, Charlie enjoys an evening’s revelry with an alcoholic millionaire (Harry Myers) who drinks to steadily increasing excess in the wake of his wife’s departure. Whenever the millionaire sobers up, however, he never recognizes Charlie as his boon companion from the night before. His selective memory proves to be awfully inconvenient for Charlie: After giving the Little Tramp enough money for the flower girl to have an operation that will restore her eyesight, the millionaire forgets all about his generosity. Which, unfortunately, leads to Charlie’s arrest and imprisonment.

After his release, Charlie looks even more bedraggled and destitute than he does in the opening scenes. The good news is, the flower girl, who has opened a flower shop, can now see. The bad news is – well, she can now see him.

“She recognizes who he must be by his shy, confident, shining joy as he comes silently toward her,” critic James Agee wrote in 1949. “And he recognizes himself, for the first time, through the terrible changes in her face. The camera just exchanges a few quiet close-ups of the emotions which shift and intensify in each face. It is enough to shrivel the heart to see, and it is the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies.”

The final image of Manhattan (1979), Woody Allen’s melancholy romantic comedy, is a loving homage to the heart-wrenching finale of City Lights. It’s to Allen’s considerable credit that his version is almost as affecting as Chaplin’s original, which Allen admits he carefully studied. “City Lights was funny and also tragic,” Allen told The New York Times in 2000. “Some think it’s sentimental, but to me, it’s an honest film about love.” For all his careful appraisal of Chaplin’s works, Allen says he still can’t fully deconstruct the magic of the master: “I don't believe Chaplin was aware of creating a new vocabulary for film comedy. He just happened to be that gifted, that superb. Very few have taken that extreme leap into a realm that is indefinable and unexplainable.”

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