My journey through Roger Ebert’s compilation of The Great Movies has exposed me to a lot of films I might not have otherwise seen, but we haven’t hit a silent comedy yet. We’ve seen silents (Battleship Potemkin, Broken Blossoms) and comedies (All About Eve, The Apartment), but the two have yet to meet. That’s kind of funny if you think about it, because I’m sure when most people think of silent film these days they think of the comedies. And rightly so. I’m not a total rookie when it comes to this genre, but I’ve never seen City Lights. Of the three big stars of the era – Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd – Chaplin is my least favorite. But it’s like picking a least favorite child: almost impossible (though my parents never had that difficulty). And for good reason; City Lights is a great showcase for the filmmaker.
Chaplin stars as his standard Tramp character, a poor man whose dreams outpace his means. The Tramp meets a beautiful flower peddler (Virginia Cherrill) with whom he instantly falls in love. The girl is blind and the Tramp makes it his mission to pay for an experimental surgery that could change her life. The goal seems to be within reach once the Tramp convinces a sucidal millionaire (Harry Myers) that he has much to live for. The millionaire is grateful and generous, but the Tramp’s plan is thrown off when it becomes clear that the millionaire only recognizes him when the richer man is blackout drunk.
As with most silent comedies, this story provides a general framework for dozens of gags. The film opens with the Tramp disrupting a statue dedication, being found asleep in the monument’s lap. What proceeds is an excellently executed sequence of errors as the Tramp can’t get down and eventually gets caught on a granite sword, unable to move at all. It is the kind of scene that sounds mundane and laughable, but that’s what is magical about actors like Chaplin – they could turn simple premises and ideas into rich veins of comedy.
Look no further than City Lights‘s boxing scene for proof of this. The basic idea: the Tramp does whatever he can to keep the referee between himself and his opponent. Chaplin does so much with this as both and actor and a director. The choreography involved actually turns the match into the dance that pretentious boxing fans have been erroneously claiming the “sport” is for a hundred years. The scene goes from gag to magic trick.
There is a lot of patience in these scenes; the set-pieces are allowed to breathe. And breathe. And breathe. It can be a little exhausting (and grating) by modern standards, but Chaplin and his ilk were creating an artform. In the appropriate temporal context the scenes probably did not feel quite so drawn-out.
Besides it’s not like that bloat doesn’t still exist. Look at the raunchy comedies that are released today. Films like Knocked Up and Forgetting Sarah Marshall run for two hours. And instead of watching Charlie Chaplin attempt to hilariously avoid accidental suicide we watch his modern-day counterpart Seth Rogen improvise funny lines with his pals. There are merits to both forms – I’m not dismissing today’s brand of man-child comedy – but you cannot really deny that there was a level of creativity in Chaplin’s work that is nowhere to be found today.
But Chaplin’s films – especially City Lights – possess another quality that is absent in the work of the Apatow gang, and even in the work of Chaplin’s contemporaries. And that is pathos. I’m pretty sure there have been entire books written about the final scene in City Lights, wherein the Tramp and his love are reunited. Chaplin and Cherrill convey everything we need to know through facial expressions. No wavering voices necessary. Harold Lloyd may have been funnier and Buster Keaton may have been more daring, but Chaplin had them both beat when it came to depicting real humanity. Beat that, Rogen.