“CITY LIGHTS” reeled me in. It pulled me by the string and led me where it wanted me to go. And I was a willing participant. Why did I misjudge NYC’s Film Forum audience. Showtime was 11:00am this past Sunday. When I walked in at 11:05am expecting to see trailers and slide in to my favorite front row seat, I walked into a packed house and fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi was onstage introducing the movie!!! I was prepared to sit on the floor when I was guided to an empty seat. This is their Film Forum Jr. Program and there were a bunch of kids in the audience for a silent film made in 1931. Funny, introducing kids to classic film by showing them a classic film made 85 years ago. Go figure…TCM.
“City Lights” stars, of course, the great silent screen icon: Charles Chaplin. He was in pre-production with this film during the Silents and made the decision to continue with it as a Silent well into the Talkies. It works. I gotta tell ya, I liked the film. It engaged me. The storytelling was clear-cut, visuals easy to follow and very detailed. To be honest I’m not so crazy about all the shtick Chaplin does in the movie. ( At the film’s opening my inside voice was bursting to scream out ~ “Get off the darned statues already. Geez!” ) He drags a gag a little too long for my taste. I got it…I got it! But on the other hand, I totally appreciate Chaplin’s balletic choreography for many of his set-pieces. That boxing scene was Awmigawd Awesome; Chaplin bouncing around behind the referee, behind his opponent or switching places with the referee. I marvelled at that. I was also happy to see his inter-action with the superstitious African-American boxer ( Victor Alexander ) didn’t diminish the boxer’s dignity…other than losing the fight like any other boxer.
Then Charlie’s a Sanitation worker and the visuals in that scene made me quietly applaud. He’s just finished scooping, when a parade of horses passes by to his dismay. When the elephant passed by, I laughed out loud as we fade out from the scene. He’s at a dinner party and yes, inevitably with his head thrown back, he swallows a whistle. The wheezing whistling bit went on too long ( “Get on with it Charlie!” ) But when he goes outside and inadvertently hails a taxi with his whistling, I smiled. When dogs start greeting him I laughed; Ha! they follow him inside to the party. How about Charlie eating spaghetti at a nightclub with his drunk pal, and starts munching without stopping mind you, on the ribbon hanging at the end of the party balloon that’s near his food? Chaplin’s timing is impeccable as he follows that ribboned spaghetti up and up…
I thought the Little Tramp’s luck was changing when he saves a rich drunk ( Harry Myers ) from committing suicide. ( More good timing in and out of the water. ) But it soon becomes apparent that the drunk is only Charlie’s friend when he was drunk. ( Awww man! ) Well, at least Charlie gets a little respite from street life ( no thanks to the snooty attitude from the butler. ) And don’t think I didn’t want to murder those delinquent newspaper boys on the corner who kept teasing him. Egads! Charlie’s always taking it on the chin from Life. But let me finally get to her:
The raison d’etre for Charlie is to try to help the beautiful Virginia Cherrill. Of course I was struck by her ( just as I was for Miss Crabtree. ) Cherrill as the blind flower girl is so sweet, already I felt my tears welling up; she, struggling with her grandmother…having a little parakeet caged right outside her window to brightly chirp her sad little life. We see her feel wistful wanting a date to pick her up. Sweet…but not in a saccharine way. How ingenuous it was the way Chaplin had those two “meet cute” and Mitt Out Sound. We get it and he trusts us to get it. He puts himself in a couple of situations to help this girl get an operation to regain her sight. His drunk rich fly-by-night friend helps him out with money, but being sober again, he accuses Chaplin of stealing the money when the cops come. There’s a cleverly convoluted little chase scene in the house. I was surprised and happy to see Charlie escape the house WITH the money. The girl can now get an eye operation. Yay!! He’s triumphant.
…But not for long.
He’s nabbed by the cops later and sent to jail. I hadn’t expected that. When he’s released, I was in shock seeing him even worse for the wear. It broke me. He’s not meant to be cooped up; he’s just a harmless little guy always trying to help folks. He probably had a hard way to go in prison. Life certainly kicks him in the seat of his pants. He just can’t seem to win. And to make things worse and have him really dashed against the rocks, he sees the flower girl again. The ending…maybe my movie pals’re right.
I associate heart-wringing pathos with Chaplin’s work, but I shouldn’t. He’s a very well-accomplished filmmaker and I should focus on that. I was continuously impressed with his story telling and what he could tell us without words. << Sigh! >> I don’t know why I resist Chaplin and Silents in general, only to see one and feel like I’ve discovered a gold mine. Well “CIty Lights” is a gold mine.
Luckily my friends don’t say “I told you so.”
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