08 January 2008

City Lights (1931)

Full credits from IMDb
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Written & Directed by: Charles Chaplin

Grade: A+

Without looking back, so to speak, at the silent cinema it was gleefully abandoning, moviegoing audiences embraced the novelty that was the "talking picture" as the norm almost immediately upon its introduction. That wasn't enough, though, to deter Charlie Chaplin from sticking with silent movies as late as 1931—when no one was making silent movies anymore—the year he released City Lights, a whole four years after The Jazz Singer had premiered. (Granted, because of his perfectionism, Chaplin's film had been in production for three of those years.)

City Lights makes no secret of Chaplin's faith in the silent film or in his distaste for the talkie; in its first scene, a group of public officials are making speeches to celebrate the unveiling of a new statue—or, at least we can only assume they're making speeches, as we see their mouths moving but Chaplin, as director, has replaced what would've been dialogue with so much amusing squawking. It's a good gag, but it has more serious undertones: he's not only aggressively mocking the talkie, but challenging the value of speech itself. Aren't mere words deficient, Chaplin provokes us to ponder, against the purity of physical expression?

After all, as hilarious as the Marx Bros. or Woody Allen are with their verbal one-liners, no one is, comic pound for comic pound, as belly-bustlingly uproarious as Chaplin. (Sorry folks, not even Keaton.) But as Chaplin demonstrates in City Lights, nor are most filmmakers capable of producing such a startling degree of poignancy. Not only is City Lights incontestably hilarious—rarely, in the movie theater (where I was fortunate enough to see the film recently), does one get to hear the strange sound of people laughing from the gut for so long—it's perhaps the purest example of the cinema's potential for pathos.

City Lights is constructed as a series of slightly interrelated vignettes, each a modest masterpiece of moviemaking in their inventive uses of form, comic timing and romantic expression. Together, they add up to filmmaking at its very best, the unadulterated visual expression of high-end slapstick flawlessly combined with the most basic, and most powerful, elements of love and romance. The two comic highlights of the film are two bonafide tours-de-force: an extended nightclub sequence with the iconic Tramp and a drunken, suicidal millionaire in which one hilarious gag follows another, and a brilliant, balletic boxing sequence that, as it's unedited, proves to be a triumph of complex comic choreography; Chaplin's comic sequences are not just a whole bunch of jokes thrown together all higgeldy-piggeldy, but they're each like one big, overarching master joke, constructed like short stories with each gag building on one another like sentences in a paragraph.

But balancing out the laughs is a serious story (even though it still provokes the occasional joke) about the tramp's courting of a blind flower girl who mistakenly believes him to be a rich man. In the end, City Lights is, like Annie Hall, less a comedy with a romantic side than a romance with comic highlights. I never cry so sincerely or so much at the movies than during the end of City Lights; all summed up in its final shot or two, it's the movies at their most tender and satisfying.

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