Monday, December 18, 2017

2017 Blind Spot Series: City Lights


I generally try to include one silent movie for each year's Blind Spot Series. For 2017, that means I watched...


Why did I pick it? Among the many holes in my viewing filmography, Charlie Chaplin's career is perhaps the biggest. Though I've been aware of him ever since I was a very small child, and have seen countless clips of his films, I had never actually watched one. When I was putting together my list for this year, I knew I was finally going to change that. And City Lights was definitely going to be that film. Until the last few years, when The Great Dictator started getting more and more love, I'd always seen City Lights touted as his very best and one of the best movies ever made.

Chaplin dons his most famous persona, the Tramp, a harmless vagrant who continually finds himself in outlandish situations. We meet him here at the unveiling of a monument to "Peace and Prosperity." As the sheet is pulled away, we see our hero asleep on the monument itself. Hilarity follows as he tries to climb down from his lofty perch. Next, he meets an inebriated man (Harry Meyers) who is in the middle of trying to commit suicide. Through many shenanigans, The Tramp stops him and the two seem to become fast friends. It turns out the man is a rather wealthy drunkard who, whenever sober, forgets ever meeting our hero and immediately dismisses him. This leads to The Tramp crossing paths and falling in love with a beautiful, but blind woman (Virginia Cherrill) who spends her days selling flowers on a street corner. After becoming ill, the woman falls behind on her rent and is in danger of being evicted. The Tramp trying to help in any way he can ensues.

You can't talk about a Charlie Chaplin movie without diving into the physical humor on display. Much of it, in this film anyway, is built on something being an inch or two from where it should be. For instance, during there is a scene at a restaurant where our hero is eating spaghetti. Since a party is going on there are balloons with long ribbons on them all over the place. Of course, one ribbon dawdles on his plate a moment and Chaplin winds up with it in his mouth. A lot of this kind of thing happens on both bigger and smaller scales throughout. There are also lots of near-misses sprinkled about. Some of them work really well. The ones that don't work as well aren't bad, though. Their execution is still really good and worth seeing, they just aren't as funny. In most cases, everything that happens is mere coincidence. The very best scene, however, is one where The Tramp takes an active role in creating the misses, the boxing scene. It starts in the locker room and his interactions with the various fighters. It culminates with what's arguably the funniest fight in cinematic history.


Despite all of Chaplin's antics, it's the love story that carries the film. Chaplin and Cherrill are able to convey much emotion without much at all in the way exposition. I understand this is a silent film, but even for these types of movies, there's not much in the way of title cards to explain things. This allows the film to show us the blossoming of their relationship rather than tell it to us. In turn, we become more actively in the happenings on the screen. It also makes the final scene more impactful. We need no words to experience the emotions the film wants from us.

I truly had a blast watching City Lights, but viewing it with twenty-first century sensibilities gives it some undertones I'm not sure were intentional. There is a homoerotic slant to The Tramp's relationship with the millionaire. Though nothing sexual happens, there is a suggestive loop to their interactions. The rich guy repeatedly gets drunk, brings The Tramp home, and literally winds up in bed with him. It's nothing that subtracts from my enjoyment of the film, just something that struck me as I was taking it in. Of course, that also makes me wonder if anyone saw it the same all those years ago. It's not out of the realm of possibility considering that Little Caesar was released the same year and immediately branded as having homosexual subtext. However, this film does have our hero's relationship with the blind woman to fall back on while Little Caesar had no such hetero-cushion.

I'm willing to admit I may be being a bit too millennial in seeing, at the very least, the possibility of bisexuality in a beloved movie that butters its bread with a male-female relationship. The thing that cannot be denied is Chaplin's mastery in all areas of film-making. As a performer, he owns the screen. His comic timing is impeccable. Every gag is a work of art. As a director, he knows enough to be patient and stay out of his best actor's way. The patience shows in how long he allows some of the gags to go on. A number of them are slow developing and rely on a certain level of repetition to get its laughs. In less sure hands, many of these would be cut short in favor of more traditional plot-building. Instead, he does sparse work as the writer of this film, trusting his visuals to tell the story. And they tell it exceedingly well. I am very happy to have crossed this off my list.


In case you forgot, or just didn't know, this post is part of the Blind Spot Challenge, as laid down by Ryan at The Matinee.

More 2017 Blind Spot Reviews

10 comments:

  1. I love this film as I think it's the film that displays Chaplin's genius as a filmmaker. While I think Modern Times is my favorite film that he directed so far. This is one of his best that I hope to re-watch again.

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  2. I'm not a huge Chaplin fan, which holds true for most silent comedians-I respect their artistry but their brand of humor doesn't always work for me, but this one is a beautifully realized vision. That's so true about him trusting the audience and himself enough to take his time with his gags, it's one of the things that makes him stand out.

    While I like Modern Times and Limelight (my personal favorite-an incredibly moving film) more this is a good way to start in on his canon.

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    1. Funny you should say that. A lot of it wasn't really laugh out loud funny, but it was almost always worth a smile. And this was a good way to start.

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  3. I've been watching a load of silent films from Chaplin's era and it's true he was a cinematic genius. What he could do with a film camera and his physical comedy of the day is astonishing even now. While City Lights is good, Modern Times is even better (and his first major talkie, The Great Dictator, is essential viewing IMO) and Limelight is vastly underrated given its proximity to his excommunication and eventual decline as a filmmaker. Glad to see you taking on some silent films, dude! Let me know if you need any suggestions for more!

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    1. I definitely need to get into more Chaplin. I try to incorporate a silent flick every now and again. Lord knows I'm deficient in that area.

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  4. So happy you had a chance to see this one. I remember watching it for the first time and I echoed a lot of your sentiments here. Chaplin really was a master. Born to put moving images on film.

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    1. So true. I'm looking forward to seeing more of his work.

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  5. I love this movie, and love Modern Times even more. The ending of City Lights, when the (now formerly) blind woman recognizes The Tramp, gets me every time. So beautiful, even without audible dialogue. What Virginia Cherrill does with her face is just... <3

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