City Lights: A Dance thru the Void

When I heard about the Blind Spot Series blogathon over at The Matinee I knew I would participate this year. I loved the idea of concentrating on 12 foreign and classic movies that every movie lover must see. My list for 2014 is here and I’ve included some modern misses and Asian films from my watchlist as well. As a classic silent film City Lights blindsided me with its dance through the void…

Blind Spot Series Logo 2014

City Lights is hailed as AFI’s #1 Romantic Comedy and is considered one of Charlie Chaplin’s best and most successful movies, at its release in 1931 and now. Any film lover should at least know of Chaplin if not be within nodding acquaintance with his body of work (which is one of the reasons I picked it – it’s a must see!)

More than likely you know he reigned over the silent film industry, or that he was a master of slaptick. No matter what you think of Charlie Chaplin or his work you can’t help but acknowledge his effect on the world of film making. His Little Tramp character, due to large part to his lack of voice and yet powerful communication, became known world-wide. For all intents and purposes Charlie Chaplin is the creator of international recognizability.

City Lights Banner

Chaplin explained how he came up with the look of the Little Tramp in a 1933 interview:

“A hotel set was built for the picture Mabel’s Strange Predicament and I was hurriedly told to put on a funny make-up. This time I went to the wardrobe and got a pair of baggy pants, a tight coat, a small derby hat and a large pair of shoes.

I wanted the clothes to be a mass of contradictions, knowing pictorially the figure would be vividly outlined on the screen. To add a comic touch, I wore a small mustache which would not hide my expression.

My appearance got an enthusiastic response from everyone. The clothes seemed to imbue me with the spirit of the character. He actually became a man with a soul—a point of view. He wears an air of romantic hunger, forever seeking romance, but his feet won’t let him.”

–from “A Comedian Sees the World” by Charlie Chaplin, Woman’s Home Companion, November 1933.

The Little Tramp did not stay the same despite his fully formed creation, and no wonder as Chaplin explored many different avenues with his famous character. He so loved this little fellow that he tried to insist that talkies wouldn’t last but “3 years, that’s all.” And you can’t blame him, “I was determined to continue making silent films … I was a pantomimist and in that medium I was unique and, without false modesty, a master.” City Lights certainly highlights this aspect of Chaplin’s work.

A noted perfectionist Charlie Chaplin wrote, acted, directed, produced and even composed music. I love these kinds of film makers because as a film lover yourself you always come away with their underlying passion for movies. When talking about his directing style on set, Chaplin stated that “everything I do is a dance. I think in terms of dance. I think more so in City Lights.” To me this describes City Lights the best and as perhaps his most successful innocent, universal work (as compared to his adult political movies) is why the film is so well thought of.

With all that history under your belt I’ve built up quite an anticipation for my blind spot movie this month, haven’t I?

Am I driving?

Am I driving?

First and foremost City Lights is a silent film. To be frank, I didn’t much anticipate this as a problem going in. Sure, I’m a subtitle addict and I love how the rhythm of another language fills my ears and how the need for a translation forces my eyes to do double duty. My reliance on expression, music and actor emotion is thus doubly, no triply necessary as those senses that enjoy a movie are already in overdrive.

That is why City Lights drove me into a void. My senses had little they needed to mull over, their hyperactive ways were unnecessary and if left to meander would, I fear, atrophy. Needless-to-say I did not enjoy Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp as he danced through love. In fact, I’ve never had time move so slowly. Fifteen minutes felt like an hour and I’d check as often. If you can imagine a 6 hour long film, of which there is only the barest of scores (no I am not a fan) and no actual talking, you will get a glimpse of my pain.

You can listen to the central musical theme below, La Violetera (Who’ll Buy my Violets) from Spanish composer, José Padilla. (WARNING: This is also the final scene of the movie and the moment that is at the core of the entire story.)

It’s quite beautiful but rather monotone. If I were passionate about orchestra music perhaps I might be able to derive quite a lot from this score. Alas, I am not. It all sounds like one long note to me with little ups and downs. I quite appreciate this version below with its ups and downs and would have appreciate La Violetera a whole lot more if so developed. Chaplin quite understood his character though as a simple man with heart who reacted in the best possible way to challenging situations. The music reflected this.

During the heyday of this film’s release I can quite understand the allure. Having just finished a non-fiction book on the Great Depression, I understand even more so how such simplicity, such joy, such universal themes could be a breath of fresh air. Even while bored out of my mind, in a soul sucking want of sense driven stimulus I could admire his great skill in communicating every emotion, every thought, all through his body language. In the wake of the weighty details of life pressing on the poor of this time, such light, joyful and, ultimately, innocent acts are inspiring and empowering.

City Lights Header

The story at the heart of City Lights is not only one of romance; it also contains themes of friendship, generosity and doing what is right in the face of overwhelming odds. Does Charlie Chaplin showcase these with extreme simplicity…yes. Does he use humor and his slapstick skits to tell the story…yes. That is the beauty of his global domination. Today we call such stories saccharine, sappy, or even cheesy and many disdain such fare as below their notice. Chaplin had the ability to touch that place, no matter how deep inside us, and that perhaps speaks to the enduring power of the Little Tramp and City Lights even now.

In future, whenever a critic or reviewer talks of unaccountable depth in a comedy I will compare it to City Lights. It was Charlie Chaplin’s gift as a film maker. Do I ever want to see this movie again? No, not under pain of torture. City Lights is a snapshot of a time, of a people, of a society that no longer exists, when life was seen as black and white. Today, we’ll only glimpse this innocent joy in a raw expression or a whimsical movement. For this kind of love (friendship / generosity / goodwill) is a thing of extinction, so rare we have to catch it as it dances through the void…

Have you seen a Charlie Chaplin? City Lights? A silent film? What did you think of the lack of dialogue? Was it a novel experience or an empowering one? What do you think of themes being presented in such an innocent and pure way as in City Lights?
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7 responses to “City Lights: A Dance thru the Void

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  3. Very interesting, I’ve never heard of anyone being so bored by a Chaplin film – I appreciate that you looked at it from a more objective perspective though. It’s a really cute film even though not my favorite Chaplin – that one has to be Limelight. Not a silent movie, I think you’ll enjoy it.
    Oh and if you need some more silent movie torture, try Birth of a Nation! It’s the worst film experience I ever had.

  4. Wow. You fooled me with the great introduction. City Lights is one of my favorite movies, so I’ll admit that I’m blind to the calls of it being anywhere near torture or pain. I also don’t think it’s as simple as you claim. Regardless of your reaction, I’m glad that you saw it.

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