Wednesday, August 3, 2016

City Lights

Yes, it's me. I've returned to the National Film Registry Project.

And today I got to introduce a friend to silent pictures, so that's a plus. City Lights is very much a hold-out film by Charlie Chaplin. Almost all movies had moved to sound two years previously, but he refused, believing that talkies were just a fad, and that his iconic Little Tramp couldn't work if he talked. Chaplin did recognize some of the value of sound, so while this movie has no spoken dialogue (kazoos fill in where public officials are speechifying), it does have a synchronized soundtrack that Chaplin partially composed himself. He was really a Renaissance man in film, since he acted, directed, wrote, and scored several of his pictures... which is now usually considered the hallmark of a terrible movie (The Room, anyone?). But maybe he just understood silent film so well that it didn't become a problem. A lot has gone into describing his slapstick as composed, artful, even choreographed like a ballet. I'm not sure I agree with that, but then, I'm not a big slapstick person to begin with. Then there also comes in the necessary bit of presentism: I know that his pantomime and sound effect gags were fresh and original in 1931, when City Lights premiered. But for someone raised on Looney Tunes, while I now understand where they got a lot of the jokes, it feels a little stale.
Which is not to say there isn't a lot here for the modern audience. There definitely is, since the movie does have deft comic timing, beautiful black-and-white cinematography, and (as a change from the silent films I usually watch) a wonderfully matched soundtrack. Some of the plot threads are kind of confusing, like the fact that The Millionaire can never recognized The Tramp unless he's drunk. It's also interesting to me that the only named character in the entire movie is the butler, but I guess you can't just call a butler "Butler". That's specifically mentioned as a breach of etiquette in The Hundred and One Dalmatians (the book, since the character was removed from the movies). But you would think someone would tell the butler that The Tramp saved The Millionaire's life, and that's why he keeps him hanging around. Or maybe The Tramp should bring some paper with him and have The Millionaire sign it. Of course, the driving plot of this movie, such as it can be called, is the relationship between The Tramp and the Flower Girl. He is willing to do anything for her, including risking falling into a rain barrel and getting clonked on the head by a flowerpot dropped by a cat. Though the romance will seem less charming and more creepy to a modern audience, given how much of it involves him stalking her and peeping through her window. But he did go to jail for her without complaint, and he is charmingly shy and twitterpated in the last frame of the film. Which is a little weird, because he was giving that same smile to the guy he was supposed to box earlier in the film. I don't think The Tramp knows how to smile without making it look like flirting.

 But this is a great picture, and very worth the watch. It's on Hulu right now, so if you like silent films, Charlie Chaplin, or classic slapstick, I'd say go check it out. It wasn't a favorite or a life-changing film for me, but it was interesting seeing where a good chunk of my favorite Looney Tunes gags came from.

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