Chaplin. Really the man’s name has such strength by itself that it almost doesn’t need to fulfill an entire sentence yet there is such a plethora of things that can be said about him. Like many performers of his time, he began his professional career in the Vaudeville theatre. He was resistant, like many stage actors, to move into the newer creative medium of film, however for a substantial amount of money, Adam Kessel of the Keystone Company convinced him to sign on. His first film was in 1914 and the film City Lights (which I recently viewed, and will be commenting on) was produced in 1921. By this time, Chaplin was well into the perfection of his craft. By 1915, he was already writing, directing, editing, and staring in all of his films so it is without a doubt that he was in control of the entirety of his art, giving him the title of auteur. Yet, Chaplin, in my opinion, was so much more then even that, he was a pioneer and ultimately a master artisan that should have carried the silent film and the way he crafted them into a genre that should exist consistently today.
In brief summary, City Lights is ultimately about the value of money and what it can bring, how it can be shared for good, the beauty of the human condition, love and Chaplin’s almost accidental kinship to all that goes on in the film. I think the most exciting thing about the film, for me, was that it was silent, yet I felt so much. Maybe even more then what I feel with a talking picture; more to consider, to question, to imagine, and to savor. While the genre was the same (comedy), Chaplin’s technique was so much different from the work that preceded it at Keystone in terms of the superficial gag. “Mack Sennett cared so little about whole plots-the individual gag was the beginning and end of his cinematic technique” (102). The ethos of comedy is often rooted in poking fun at the establishment, and Chaplin’s comedic work is no exception to this. One of my favorite moments in the film is in the very beginning, when Chaplin has a bit of an awkward dance with the statue of Peace and Prosperity. The city is unveiling the monument and as they pull off the sheet to reveal it, Chaplin is asleep in one of the statues arms (even as I write, I am laughing out loud). Talk about thumbing his nose up at the establishment, at least in a cute and fumbling sort of way.
I am sure, as most, I found the most enduring part of the film to be the relationship Chaplin cultivates with the blind female lead that sells flowers on the street. It seems to be a perfect match. She can fall in love with him for his gestures and care, instead of his looks. Through a chance encounter, Chaplin meets a drunken millionaire, whom he helps, and then is rewarded later in the film. Not before, he first works as a street cleaner and fighter to make enough money to help the young woman pay her rent and then also get an operation to restore her sight. Once the millionaire is sober he can’t remember where the money went and accuses Chaplin of steeling it, so unfortunately Chaplin goes to jail briefly. In the end, he gets out and is walking down the street and sees the woman in her own flower shop, with illuminated vision. He runs into the shop but she doesn’t recognize him of course until she feels his face and then it all comes flooding back-so too for the audience.
It is a truly beautiful moment and maybe more memorable because nothing is said. It is all conveyed thru pantomimic genius. It says that love and the human condition are universal and that made me feel good and smile, even tear up. It made me realize that, while I am not quite a connoisseur of Chaplin and the sum of silent film, it spoke to me silently saying, “you can play the clown but not be a fool.”
Mast, Gerald & Kawin, Bruce. A Short History of the Movies. 11th Ed. Pearson Education, Inc., 2008. Print
Youtube, City Lights. http://www.youtube.com