Thursday, May 24, 2012

Whimsy and Wonder: Chaplin's CITY LIGHTS

The Studio System embraced sound in 1929. Chaplin, among many other filmmakers, was a reluctant convert to the new technology and believed that the introduction of spoken words to the screen would mean the end of the silent characters he had created. Chaplin understood that the Tramp would no longer carry his magical gait through the advent of sound in moving pictures. The silents had captured the imagination of an international audience, and Chaplin believed that sound would close the boundaries between nations with differing languages.

Chaplin's misanthropic tramp; Keaton's coy and socially stunted traveler; and Lloyd's rich man with a purpose, brought years of films that will forever be cemented in film history precisely for their timeless and enduring nature. We didn't need words to feel their pain, the awkwardness, their sadness and their fantasies. We felt their moods through movement and fluidity in a way that we are unable to replicate in film's today. Physical humor has been much reduced to bathroom humor and stupidity but the films of the 20's represented a space to allow comedy to unveil itself in mood and body language rather than speak for itself.

City Lights (1931), was Chaplin's last "silent" film before transitioning over to "talkies" five years later with Modern Times (1936). Although Modern Times was his first sound film, Chaplin stills defies the transition. When the tramp speaks his first words, (he sings a song to a crowded room) it's famously in gibberish.

City Lights is said to be a "crossover" film. Chaplin's use of simple sound effects and a synchronized score mimic the feel of the new talkies. He utilizes sound effects to replace speech in the opening sequence of the film, where unintelligible beeps mimic speech. Chaplin seems to be hinting that words are not always necessary to tell a story. Dialogue is still represented on intertitles.

In City Lights, the Tramp wakes atop a statue at it's unveiling. He is forced leave the square and aimlessly wander the streets. He buy a flower from a beautiful girl on the sidewalk. He quickly finds out she is blind when a car door slams and she tries to return his change to the wrong man. The Tramp sits by as she watches the man drive away. He falls instantly in love with her innocence and grace. He leaves her and she goes back to her daily routine with her live-in grandmother. Later that night, the Tramp is wandering alone by the waterfront, the girl's flower in hand, and convinces a suicidal, rich and inebriated older man to change his plans and return home. In a effort to thank the Tramp for his help, the rich old man showers him with gifts. Only to wake up the morning to not remember what had happened.

The Tramp is again turned out onto the street, but this time visits the girl in the rich man's car. He courts her for a while and states his intention to take care of her. The young girl believes that this rich man will be her prince charming. When she and her grandmother fall on hard times, the Tramp insists that he will take care of everything. He embarks on several wild adventures to procure rent money for the girl. Including a humorous interlude at a nightly boxing club. He eventually seeks the financial help of the rich man he saved but is mistaken as a thief immediately thereafter. The Tramp runs to the girl, gives her all the money, some for the rent and the rest for eye surgery, to get her sight back. He is then taken to jail after he leaves her house.

We see the girl again some months later, she has regained her sight and has opened a flower shop. The Tramp, after being released from jail, sees her in the window of her shop. The girl, finding a strange man staring at her through the window, goes outside to offer him some money. When she holds his hand, she finally realizes that this Tramp, not a man of means, was the one who ultimately saved her.

Chaplin was able to fund and distribute City Lights through United Artists, allowing him to make a silent picture amongst the new world of talkies.  Ironically, even with the new sound technology, City Lights was, and remains, one of Chaplin's finest feature films and was his most financially successful venture at it's opening (it made over $5 million during it's initial release).

The final scene of the film remains one of the most beloved moments in cinematic history and was even a personal favorite of Chaplin himself. He believed it to be his most honest and least rehearsed moment on screen in all of his illustrious career. The final moment of the film between the girl and Tramp will leave you feeling wistful for a time that can only be relieved through the magic of cinema.

City Lights was selected for admission to the National Film Registry in 1992. Remembered for it's lyrical romanticism, especially in Chaplin's interaction with the blind girl. Most of Chaplin's film tend to grapple with social issues and strife but City Lights carries an air of simplicity and genuine good-hearted fun.

Chaplin's Tramp utilizes physical humor and exists on the fringes of society. He used body language as  a form of speech that allowed him to interact with the space around him. Unlike Keaton who coexists with society, Chaplin is always in a stuggle with it. Chaplin's only friends in City Lights are those who cannot see him. They can't even remember he exists. The Tramp is a man living on the edges of the world, wandering around without purpose, but who helps his audience see themselves in a new light.

This film is, at its core, a humanistic struggle to survive in this cruel world. The little things; a dropped flower, the kindness of strangers, love in unexpected places, are the things propelling us through this hardness and Chaplin's Tramp helps us to remember them.

 Opening sequence, the reveal of a new statue in the square reveals a sleeping tramp

 Chaplin at the camera, still dressed as the tramp 

 The tramp wanders down to the river, where fate will change his life

 The tramps first interaction with the blind flower girl, for him it's love at first sight

 In an attempt to earn money for the blind girl's rent, the tramp enters the boxing ring

 Opening Titles of City Lights 

 The tramp is smitten 

 The blind girl dreaming at the window of the love she seeks to find

The tramp awaiting his "fixed" fight at the boxing ring, things don't ultimately go his way

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