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
Year: 1931
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)


MovieMan0283 said...

The fusing of the two faces in Persona is another famous one (and one I will be dealing with shortly on my blog, whenever I summon up the courage - not to mention energy - to tackle that & 2 other similarly-themed and similarly meaty movies. Maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow...we'll see.)

Oddly enough, The Gold Rush has always been my favorite Chaplin film. City Lights is the purest, and perhaps the best, but somehow The Gold Rush brings the biggest smile to my face.

Roger L. said...

thanks for your discussion of City Lights. I think its position on the pantheon has a lot to do with the timing of its release - a couple years into the sound period, Chaplin's "last" true tramp film ("Modern Times" is almost fatally inflected with his increasingly confused politics). The audacity of its sentimentality and slapstick, meshed together. The late '20s films were uneven for CC and increasingly infrequent.

The last moment has become the prototypical "Chaplin" moment for popular culture. I still prefer the Mutuals as the epitome of his craft. By "City Lights" the burden of him "being Chaplin" had overpowered him - note the fact that he shot miles of film and replaced cast twice to complete the film.

Keep it up!

Rob in L.A. said...

Famous close-up: Jean-Pierre Léaud in the final shot of “The 400 Blows.”

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