[I tried to find a movie on the list that dealt with the concept of freedom to post today. Then I went for “shit blows up.” Barring finding either of those already written, well, why not an American classic?]
City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1931)
The work of Charlie Chaplin has been one of the gaping holes in my film viewing my entire life. I was always more a Buster Keaton guy, and never got round to watching the Little Tramp until very recently, and I still haven’t seen much of his work at all (though I have enjoyed all I’ve seen). And thus it is that I didn’t get around to seeing City Lights for the first time until last weekend. And it’s wonderful, of course it’s wonderful, but now, almost by default, I’m involved in the debate: City Lights (as I write this, #39 in IMDb’s Top 250) or Modern Times (currently at #44)? Both are fantastic, and at least if you go by the voters at IMDB, they’re Chaplin’s two best. Critically, looking at Rotten Tomatoes, Modern Times‘ 100% edges City Lights‘ 98% (with the one dissenter being The Nation‘s Alexander Bakshy), while They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?, which aggregates critical top-X lists, has CL at 29 and MT at 43 on their top 1000 (numbers mined 13Mar2013). The battle rages on! It’s a personal thing, I think—City Lights is the more “serious” of the two films, despite its slapstick sequences, a love story that happens to be funny, while Modern Times is a comedy with pretensions (successful ones, obviously) to massive spectacle and pointed satire. I find both wonderful…but I’m siding with Modern Times.
Which, again, is not to say that City Lights is not one of filmdom’s finest offerings. Chaplin, playing his much-beloved Tramp character, meets a blind flower girl (White Heat beauty Virginia Cherrill). Through an amusing series of missteps, she comes to believe that the Tramp is actually very wealthy. Which would seem to be a problem—except that the Tramp subsequently meets a millionaire (The Chinatown Mystery‘s oft-uncredited Harry Myers), convinces him not to commit suicide in one of the funniest slapstick routines this side of The General, and becomes his pal, much to the dismay of the millionaire’s butler (Chaplin regular Al Ernest Garcia). All goes well until the Tramp discovers an article in the newspaper about a Swiss scientist who has developed an operation that can restore sight to the blind; his good heart says there’s no decision to be made here and he should help her in any way possible, but on the other hand, will she still love him if she can see who he really is?
I don’t know what happened in American film. Somehow the term “rom-com” has become a pejorative, but if we look back at many of America’s most beloved films—City Lights, Bringing Up Baby, Singin’ in the Rain, Some Like It Hot, Neighbors, Sabrina, hell, even the acid-etched The Apartment or the ultra-bitchy All About Eve—you’ve got one helluva lot of rom-coms. And they’re all amazing. Why isn’t anyone writing this stuff anymore instead of [fill in the Gerard-Butler-Is-Woefully-Miscast rom-com of the year]? But I don’t mean to get sidetracked wondering about the death of the romantic comedy in America instead of focusing on this particular rom-com, for which one can use the term “an exemplar of the breed” (if not the exemplar of the breed; I can think of many almost as good, most mentioned earlier in this paragraph, but I can’t think of one better). Chaplin does a lot of funny things, people fall in love, there’s an obstacle to be overcome and an ethical dilemma for the main character… it’s all the right ingredients, turned into a perfectly tasty stew by Chaplin (who also wrote) and served up with just the right amount of style and a refreshing dose of straightforwardness. As far as rom-coms go, they don’t come better than this. And I’ll say again that I think which one any given person prefers is a matter of personal taste; Modern Times has that satirical bite and big-picture mentality, whereas City Lights is a small, simple film. Both are amazing. You gotta see ’em. **** ½
Part 1 of the full film on Youtube.