Criterion Caravan #7: City Lights (1931) by Charlie Chaplin.
Continuing my chronological journey through the Criterion Collection as available on VOD.
When we last visited with Mr. Chaplin at the start of this journey, I discussed my preference for Buster Keaton over Chaplin and my outrage that Chaplin’s star has eclipsed his with film nabobs. Returning to him for City Lights, perhaps his most loved (if not studied) film did nothing to change my mind.
I’m sorry. I recognize he is brilliant with the physical comedy, and that his later films he did the world some kind of great service by littering them with hamfisted dollops of schoolboy Marxism. But I just find him overly mannered, prim, prissy and too absorbed in the antics of his own movements. Unlike Keaton, whose physical comedy is soaked in pathos, Chaplin is “clever” and amusing, but emotionally barren.
I will say this however: for a bit it seemed like City Lights was leading up to the most horrifying tragic denouement history would have seen. While it seemed it was going that way I was in awe and delight. Spoiler recap: The tramp saved a drunk rich man from killing himself. When they went back to the millionaire’s house, he said - still drunk - how can I thank you. The Tramp asked for money so the blind girl he was in love with could get an operation to not be blind any more. The millionaire handed it over. But then there was a break in and the police came. The millionaire sobered up and didn’t remember giving the tramp money. The tramp fled to the blind girl and handed the money over to her to get her operation and then turned himself in. Months later, the tramp is released from prison, a shell of the tramp he once was. Such a mess that boys kick him in the street. He passes a shop window and sees the blind girl at work. Only now she can see. But she sees him and mocks the desheveled wreck of a tramp in the street. Oh the irony. And if it had ended there it would have been the most wonderfully cruel ending since Esmerelda rode off and left Quasimodo talking to the stones, since Angela got in the car with Jordan and left Brian Crakow standing in the street. If it had ended just one shot earlier City Lights would have joined those ranks. But it didn’t and instead gave us a very last second happy ending, which as much as one would like to pretend the film did end a half second earlier, you just can’t unsee.
And so the film ends up another whimsical Chaplin titterer. Which if that’s your thing, you will love. I’m sticking with Keaton and from here on I will exercise the Caravan driver’s prerogative to not skip over the rest of a director’s entries after I have seen two of his films. I know they are all important and historic. But we’re still only 1931 and have miles to go before we sleep.
Next up: Another visit with Rene Clair for his “lyrical masterpiece” Le Million.