‘City Lights’: A Silent Movie Still Entertaining in the Era of Sound

By  · Published on April 30th, 2014

Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.

This week, they revel in the unadulterated delight of City Lights and imagine it as an elderly film that still feels young at heart.

In the #50 (tied) movie on the list, The Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) falls in love with a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) and tries everything he can to earn money, even as life throws him repeatedly under the bus.

But why is it one of the best movies of all time?

Scott: So we’ve come to the 50th movie in our journey and therefore the self-regulated end of our Best Movie Ever conversations, and City Lights feels like a fitting end because, at 83 years old, it feels incredibly fresh.

I’d argue that – barring a major aesthetic difference – it would be popular in theaters today. Do you think I’m crazy?

Landon: Obviously, but that has nothing to do with the previous sentence. I would push against fresh a bit and say the movie is eternal. It’s hard to argue that there is anything essential to movies after having discussed 50 films that approach the medium in radically different ways, but there’s something deceivingly simple yet quite profound about Chaplin and the Little Tramp’s ability to make us laugh and cry in City Lights that speaks to the heart of what movies can do that other forms can’t in quite the same way.

Scott: To that point, it’s probably the larger world which cinema allows performances like that to interact with. Movies gave Vaudevillians an infinitely large toy chest.

As for claiming the movie would be a hit in 2014, I also understand that sound-less films have their drawbacks for a modern audience. It’s perfectly reasonable, especially when you consider that some film fans of 1931 were already saying, “Silent picture? That’s sooo 1920s.”

And as much as I love older movies, even I have days where I just need something modern. There’s something soothing about it.

Landon: The Artist of its day, except not a gimmick.

Well, that’s partly why I love the middle finger City Lights gives to sound cinema at the beginning, having people make incoherent babble before the unveiling of the city statue, like he was saying that sound stood a risk of reducing cinema to a bunch of talking heads. This really is a case where he tries to preserve the joys unique to silent Hollywood filmmaking.

The irony being that 9 years later he would direct one of Hollywood’s great sound films with The Great Dictator. With one of the best “talking head” moments in a movie I could ever think of.

Scott: Following one of the best silent moments with the globe scene. He offered jabbing criticism from the best seat possible – as someone willing to evolve with the art form.

Landon: I do take your point about Vaudeville. It’s almost like this film is the period at the end of the story about silent Hollywood. It shows the stunning art of silent narrative for-entertainment filmmaking, of watching two people fall in love or even a hilarious suicide scene. It definitely inherits Vaudeville’s legacy – it’s about a billionaire befriending a street tramp, after all – yet it’s thoroughly cinematic at the same time, realized through Chaplin’s sly touches as opposed to Buster Keaton’s spectacular gestures.

Scott: Absolutely. Keaton was a showman, Chaplin was an auteur. And his comedic gymnastics here are still thrilling because they’re almost always surprising.

He worked by matching suspense to pay-off, but it was never always when you thought it would be. There’s a small scene where he’s admiring a statue on the street, when a vent opens up behind him and he starts walking backward…

His magic was in varying the pratfalls so that you never knew if he’d fall down the hole or keep the call close. That element of surprise makes the work here eternally new.

Landon: I was just thinking about that exact scene. Unlike much of Keaton’s work, a scene like that could conceivably occur on stage. But you wouldn’t get Chaplin’s facial expressions, or the intimacy that seeing him on a big screen gives, or the comic composition of the nude statue within the frame. There’s something older than cinema about his approach to storytelling and humor, yet he shrewdly uses the magical tools of silent moviemaking – the quick whip-pan as the car door slams after Tramp buys the flower from the blind woman, for example.

A sound-based joke in a silent movie.

Scott: And that’s mostly why I think this movie would do well today. It’s naive to think that broad audiences would embrace it as a silent picture for 2014, but if it were sound, every other element of it would resonate. Particularly the grueling, yet hilarious, spiral of fate The Tramp experiences as a loser in life. There’s real weight to the journey, funny as it might be played.

Landon: It’s been too long since we’ve seen a hapless, yet golden-hearted homeless person be the recurring protagonist across movies. They’re relegated in more recent movies to giving sage advice and moving the story along.

Scott: Or being stabbed by Christian Bale.

Landon: I nominate Tom Waits as the new Little Tramp.

Also, as much charm as there is to City Lights, his Depression-era commentary on the rich has a definite bite to it, which no doubt reflect Chaplin’s progressive politics.

Scott: It’s how he was able to make robust roles out of flat, representational characters. Not only is the millionaire bi-polar when he sees whiskey, he’s also tragically unhappy despite his riches.

I also love that the blind flower girl isn’t exactly a damsel in distress. She needs help, and she gets a hero, but in the time that The Tramp is jailed, she’s prospered on her own merit, building a successful business because someone was willing to give her the opportunity to regain her sight.

Landon: Good point. These are all stock characters and tropes Chaplin is working with, yet his touches lend a dimensionality to them that resists stereotypes or inconsequentiality. The millionaire’s suicide attempts may be side-splittingly inept, but they’re still suicide attempts, and his pitiable drunkenness ends up saving his life.

There’s something really democratic about City Lights. Anyone can show their potential if you give them a chance, no matter their lot in life.

Scott: It also takes a certain amount of black comedy guts to include a complicated water-splashing leap in the middle of a suicide attempt.

Landon: That’s one other thing that this film reminds us of regarding classic Hollywood. Without the spectacle of sound (or, later, advanced special effects), all we’re left with is a body onscreen. Yet Chaplin as a performer and director proves that bodies onscreen can be cinematic magic. His struggle to drunkenly walk on the dance floor, for instance. It’s a reminder that we have in many ways lost the notion of what it means to simply perform in front of a camera, and to trust in how that performance can tell a story and bring to life a character. Who was the last good physical comedian? Jim Carrey?

Scott: Allison Janney, maybe.

Landon: Yes!

Scott: Joseph Gordon-Levitt did the Make ’Em Laugh routine on SNL a few years ago, and he did fine, but it also showed how lung-breakingly difficult those routines were.

Landon: Or Melissa McCarthy, too.

Scott: Doing them is one thing, making them entertaining is another, and making them look easy is still another. There are a few great physical performances today, but the concept of an entire feature hinging on them is long gone.

Landon: Yeah, Chaplin didn’t say “Fuck! Oh, balls!” every time he fell. I’m no Beatles or Stones when it comes to Keaton and Chaplin, but comparing them always makes me realize their respective strengths better. Keaton did superhuman stunts and made them look easy, unassuming. Chaplin performed acrobatic dances and made them look effortless.

Scott: City Lights also has all the ingredients for a great modern rom-com. The meet-cute, the mistaken identities, the drive to become romantically viable.

It’s a loose connection, but it reminds me a lot of Groundhog Day where Bill Murray’s Phil has to become better in order to win true love. The Tramp isn’t necessarily trying to get better here – he’s fighting hard against pure chance and bad luck in order to prevail – but he’s definitely changing his life because he falls in love.

The basic notes are still there, and City Lights ends with one of the most well-earned, impossibly sweet moments in cinema history. It took brilliance and restraint not to overplay the hand when The Tramp and the Flower Girl finally meet up again, and the result is a scene that let’s us fill in the blanks while cheer-crying.

Landon: And that’s where Chaplin’s work is elevated beyond great comedy to great filmmaking across to board. He trusts his audience, and doesn’t seek to overtly manipulate, pander to, or instruct their emotions. He knows when not to be broad, which is a good rule for comedy and filmmaking writ large. He understands the subtle tools necessary to execute even a seemingly simple story.

And one last thing about the ironies of City Lights as a “silent” film. Chaplin’s own voice is all over this film, from the gibberish of the politicians at the opening statue unveiling to that hilarious gag when the tramp shallows the whistle at a party. Sure, we still have multi-hyphenates in front of and behind the camera, but Chaplin’s work here (despite the collaborative nature of filmmaking on and offscreen) is really a one-man show. It’s surprisingly intimate filmmaking. By knowing The Tramp, you can feel the presence of Chaplin himself.

Scott: I’ll say it again. If we had a magic machine that would keep all the elements of this movie in tact while making it a sound picture, I think it would be a breakout hit for Summer 2014. The heartfelt comedy event of the year.

Landon: To your point about modern audiences, I’ve always thought that if I ever had a kid, I would show him/her Chaplin movies before s/he ever “learned” that silent, black and white films were old and boring.

Scott: Like, you’d full on trick him/her and then spring the wonder of color filmmaking and sound like they were new inventions? Because that would be cruel and excellent.

Landon: Move straight from there to the cinematic achievements of Michael Bay.

Scott: God’s work.

Landon: There are certainly bulwarks that could prevent modern audiences from seeing the magic here, but for film fans, I can’t imagine anyone not loving the hell out of City Lights, and I typically try to avoid making generalizations like that. But this has to be by far one of the least controversial choices on this list.

Scott: It is pure delight.

Landon: Anybody who doesn’t enjoy a drunk man burping whistles that result in dogs following him around is no friend of mine.

I can’t think of a more perfect film to end this journey through cinema on. It’s been a treat, Scott.

Scott: So now we can finally stop watching movies!

Next Time: Some final thoughts on the 50 best movies of all time

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