I have, until this point, never seen a Charlie Chaplin movie. I haven’t even seen the 1992 Robert Downey Jr. biopic Chaplin. I know that he is a legend, especially of the silent film era, and that his most popular character, the Little Tramp, is in a lot of his most popular films. Even still, I have never been able to get myself to sit down and watch one of his films.
Silent films have never interested me much. I hate the little breaks in the action for the dialogue cards. It feels forced to me and makes the film slow down. I don’t like how overly dramatic the actors have to be just to get their point across with body language instead of words. I didn’t understand everyone’s obsession with The Artist in 2011, and am not quite sure why it was the best picture Oscar winner (although I never agree with the Academy). I do understand that it is harder to tell a story without dialogue, or at least it requires more creativity. But sound isn’t an issue anymore, so why go backwards?
All of this sets the table for me to watch City Lights, a 1931 film written by, directed by, and starring silent film icon Charlie Chaplin. Also it’s a silent movie. This is the first movie on the list I wasn’t too jazzed to watch.
Turns out, this movie is on the list for a reason, and Charlie Chaplin is an icon for a reason, too.
The story is fairly simple. A tramp stumbles upon a beautiful young woman selling flowers and falls in love-at-first-sight with her. She is blind, and therefore unaware that he is a wandering homeless person. The movie then sets up several situations in which he tries to impress her, help her, get her to fall in love with him, etc. There is also a subplot where he befriends an intoxicated, rich man. While the rich man is drunk, they are the best of friends, but when he is sober, he pretends not to know the tramp. Comedy ensues.
The magic of this movie is that it is really funny. Slapstick is not really my humor style, but I laughed out loud (by myself) several times in the film. And it doesn’t just play for laughs, the love story at the center ends up being compelling, and the end of the film had me wondering if these two crazy kids would get together or not. I was a bit shocked at how invested I had become. Because, again, there was no talking.
There are several scenes where the choreography is so genius and the scenes unfold without any cuts (or minimal cutting). This style only adds to the humor. A boxing match is done in what seems like a single take, and must have taken days of rehearsals to get right, but they nail it. I was laughing heartily. It was like a humorous dance with the two boxers and the referee. It’s worth watching the movie for this scene alone.
I now fully regret my talky snobbery and plan on checking out some more of Chaplin’s more popular work. It holds up. I’m sure there are others out there that will entertain and move as well. And I am sure there are more on this list.