City Lights (1931)

brooke I want to start by saying that I don’t think I will ever get over how cute that movie was.

casey (looking for gif of Charlie Chaplin walking)

brooke Honestly, I’m embarrassed that I had never seen a Charlie Chaplin movie before because now I want to watch all of them.

casey I’d only seen Modern Times. The man knows his slapstick
City Lights actually has some real emotional depth.

brooke Truly
I’ve never seen you so giggly in the 6 years I’ve known you.

casey So let’s break it down. We watched City Lights, in which Chaplin plays the Tramp, a lovable goof who meets a blind flower girl and, in the course of events, woos her under the (sort of accidental) pretense of being a wealthy man. He does with the semi-assistance of the capricious Millionaire, who meets the Tramp while in a state of suicidal drunkenness and subsequently remembers their friendship only when inebriated. Hilarity ensues, wrapped around a surprisingly sweet core.

brooke It starts off a little choppy, with a couple of scenes that appear to set the movie up as a series of comedic vignettes. I honestly had no idea what it was about. For maybe the first 5-10 minutes I thought we were just going to follow the Tramp around town while he did generally Trampish things.

casey Which would have been fine in its own right! I was raised on postmodern, smartass verbal comedy, but time has not diminished the appeal of Chaplin’s schtick.

brooke I couldn’t agree more. I had that exact thought early on in the film–that nearly 100 years later, that straightforward comedy-for-the-sake-of-comedy really is that good
After a few minutes, the vignettes start to come together when Chaplin comes across the Millionaire for the first time
Which involved some depression and a lot more swimming than you expect from a couple of guys in suits…

casey One thing that impressed me was the cinematography. We recently watched Broken Blossoms, and while it’s not fair to compare two films by different directors in completely different genres, the differences between the films were striking. For example, both films have boxing scenes filmed in medium-long shots, but the dynamism, lighting, and variety of angles used in City Lights, compared to the static, dark, and square framing of Broken Blossoms, shows how the art and technology of filmmaking had advanced in a decade.

brooke In Broken Blossoms, many of the details were fuzzy around the edges. City Lights is like a whole new world, cinematographically speaking.
(is that a word? it should be)
So much of the humor might have been lost if the camera had been older

casey I wonder how much of the difference comes from better film preservation.

brooke Let’s talk about how freaking charming Chaplin is

Screen Shot 2016-01-14 at 9.13.40 PM

brooke In his very first scene he’s discovered sleeping on a statue as it’s unveiled to the city, and there’s something so mesmerizing about his movement. It’s exaggerated and silly, but it’s also somehow beyond perfect
I mean, it’s no wonder he was universally beloved.

casey Is there such a thing as “subtly mugging”? Like, broad overacting punctuated by small, idiosyncratic grace notes? That’s what he delivers.

brooke Nowhere is it more impressive than in the boxing scene.
It’s obviously choreographed as the Tramp dances behind the referee to avoid being hit, getting in his own little punches as they two-step around the ring. It’s a little stiff, but it’s done so well that you forgive it.
I was in stitches watching the Tramp try to push the other guy down by his shoulders, and then it gets BETTER when the boxers knock each other out and take turns getting up and falling down while the ref tries to count to 10.

casey The performances are wonderful to watch. Most of the side characters exist to play the indignant straight man to Chaplin’s screwball clowning, while Virginia Cherril’s blind girl is much more naturalistic and restrained. That brings out an altogether different dynamic to her scenes, with subtler comic beats, small gestures, reaction shots. That kind of thing.

brooke It almost feels like she’s in a different movie, but in a good way
Her performance really drags you in emotionally

casey And that final scene…
but first
Let’s talk music

brooke The music!
I knew the soundtrack was going to be good when, in the first scene, the speakers were given “voices” that made them sound like the Peanuts teacher (now I wonder if the latter is inspired by the former?)
But yes, the movie had all the bells and whistles

casey There were lots of sound effect gags, including possibly the first use of the Looney Tunes-esque “swallowed a whistle” bit. According to Wikipedia, it was also the first time Chaplin composed his own film score.

brooke Hats off to you, Mr. Chaplin.

Screen Shot 2016-01-14 at 10.02.58 PM

brooke Are you ready to talk about the final scene?

casey It makes me think of a movie analogy. I have a friend who once explained to me an overlooked aspect of The Beatles’ genius: they knew how to end songs. They rarely used fade-outs or overlong outros, instead resolving their songs simply and directly, leaving the listener on an emotional high but wanting more.

City Lights knows exactly when to end.

I think the spoiler statute of limitations has passed, but I’ll just say that it hinges on a major sacrifice, a lengthy separation, and finally, a slow buildup to a moment of recognition between the blind girl and the Tramp. Then, suddenly, it’s over. AND IT’S PERFECT.

brooke Chaplin knows when to go over the top and when to dial it back, and this whole movie is full of both. One problem I see in a lot of comedy today is that creators don’t know when to wrap things up. Scenes either drag forever or end too fast.

casey Or they make their happy endings too saccharine.

brooke The finale of City Lights really was perfect, though.
I never knew I could get so emotionally involved in a movie that begins with a guy getting a giant marble sword stuck up his pants
And has a joke about elephant poop
But I digress.
It’s a great movie.

casey Eventually we’re bound to disagree, but not this time. City Lights is a winner. All the stars.

brooke I’ll just say one more thing: I hope there’s a lot more Charlie Chaplin on our list.


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