Sunday, March 22, 2009
Film Ignorance #31: City Lights
Film: City Lights
Rating: Yep, It's a Classic
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, other, less important people
Reason for Ignorance: Saw clips in film class, never finished it
Ignorance Rating*: Pending
The American Film Institute just named City Lights the greatest romantic comedy of all time. I'm pretty sure that's a mistake for two reasons. First of all, it's nowhere near as good as the best screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s. It also doesn't stack up well against Woody Allen's best romantic comedies of the 70s and 80s.
My second objection is that it's just not a romantic comedy. Granted, I'm the very last person to police categories and genres. But this movie is in fact two intertwined tales. One of them is a classic, tragic romance involving Chaplin's Little Tramp and a blind flower girl who thinks he's a rich suitor. The other story is a slapstick comedy involving the Little Tramp and a suicidal millionaire who considers Charlie his best friend while drunk, then kicks the tramp out on the street every time he sobers up.
Although these two stories do end up intersecting at the end of the film, they're completely separate for the majority of the movie. In other words, this can't be a romantic comedy, because the comedy isn't romantic, and the romance is tragic. It's a comedy and a romance, side by side.
And it is a very funny comedy and a very sad romance. The suicidal millionaire who constantly befriends and then disowns Chaplin leads to a number of very funny moments, particularly whenever the Tramp has to prevent his suicide attempts. And the romance between the Tramp, who pretends to be a rich man, and the blind flower girl is quite moving.
Although I liked this movie a lot, I think it's pretty overrated; it's certainly not one of the greatest films ever made, and doesn't even stack up to a more sophisticated Chaplin film like Modern Times. And I can identify why it's received such critical acclaim: the final shot. The final shot of City Lights is one of five or ten most famous closeups in the entire history of cinema. Film luminaries from Fellini to Woody Allen to P.T. Anderson have closed some of their best movies with an homage to that shot. Without it, this is just an excellent Chaplin movie; with it, this "comedy romance in pantomime" has become a cinematic standard.
Bonus Game: What closeups can you think of that are as famous or more famous than this one? I think the "more famous" category is probably empty. But possibly as famous:
1.Gloria Swanson's "I'm ready for my closeup" closeup in Sunset Boulevard
2.Orson Welles is introduced in The Third Man
3.John Wayne is horrified by captive white women in The Searchers (I would also accept: John Wayne is introduced in Stagecoach)