Directed by Charlie Chaplin
You’d think that it wouldn’t have taken 23 years for a self-professed film lover (and film student!) to watch his first Charlie Chaplin film, but that’s exactly how long it took. It’s not really a matter of whether or not I was trying to avoid his work, only that, for the most part, broad physical comedy has never been my cup of tea. Don’t get me wrong, slapstick, performed properly, can be extremely funny, but I’ve always found the artistry of comedy through dialogue to be the most impressive form of filmmaking. So in my long queue of films to watch, Chaplin has always been lost somewhere in the shuffle. But seeing as how I am a “student of the game” so to speak, I’ve still read a lot about both the man and his films. “City Lights” along with “Modern Times” are probably his two most infamous films and I finally got a chance to watch the former. After having done so, I’m convinced that the reason slapstick is so hard to pull off in films nowadays is because Chaplin already did it all, and did it so well that no one dares repeat it.
It took me a while to warm up to this film. I had to be eased into the broadness of it all. But gradually I found myself chuckling more and more, until finally I realized that I was enjoying myself. It’s amazing that a film with such reputed off-screen difficulties (Chaplin filmed the meeting between The Tramp and The Flower Girl over 350 times! The relationship between the two actors was also tumultuous at best. At one point, Virginia Cherrill quit only to re-negotiate her contract for double what it originally was!) has absolutely none of it show up in the finished film. The relationship between The Tramp and The Flower Girl is pure saccharine and none of the offscreen animosity between the two leads is evident at all. The climactic boxing match is slapstick poetry and the final scene is absolutely heartbreaking through the use of music (completely composed by Chaplin as well!) and Chaplin’s subtle but all-encompassing smile. Really, for a film that tethered no real dramatic or emotional connection to me in the preceeding eighty minutes, I was surprised at how much the final two minutes sincerely moved me. It’s of no surprise that the final scene has been said to contain some of the best acting ever committed to celluloid. Because it’s true.
I suspected that by the end of “City Lights” I wouldn’t be looking forward to watching more films by Charlie Chaplin. I didn’t think that I would necessarily dislike the movie, only that I would remain somewhat indifferent towards it and begrudgingly look forward to more hours spent with the man. I was mistaken. Now I’m looking very much forward to the remaining Chaplin films on my list, silent or not.