Tuesday, February 10, 2009


The transition from silent films to talkies proved devastating for many movie stars. Some with thick European accents, like Teutonic actor Emil Jannings who won the first Best Acting Oscar, did not weather the conversion and returned to Germany. The silent clowns who practiced the art of pantomime became one group adversely affected by the advent of sound. Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd emerged as the first casualties of the talkies. Meanwhile, Chaplin had nothing but contempt for sound films. “Motion pictures need dialogue as much as Beethoven symphonies need lyrics,” he said. Indeed, Chaplin saw few advantages to sound, despite the sensation that the new technology created for the industry. Warner Brothers introduced sound pictures in 1927 with its quasi-talkie “The Jazz Singer,” and sound propelled Warners into the big leagues with exalted studios like MGM and Paramount. Chaplin did not rush to climb aboard the sound movie bandwagon. Instead, he hoped that “City Lights” (**** out of ****) would revive silent movies. As the popularity of sound waxed, Chaplin grew more anxious about sound. Nevertheless, he produced his greatest silent movie comedy “City Lights” in 1931. He took into account, however, the impact of sound and added a synchronized soundtrack as well as his own post-production musical score. Chaplin remained reluctant to convert to sound. When he made his next classic comedy Modern Times (1936), he made it as a silent. Eventually, Chaplin converted to sound with his classic anti-Hitler film “The Great Dictator” in 1940.

Chaplin’s survival is amazing since sound ushered in a new breed of comedian. These comics hailed from either vaudeville or the Broadway stage. As the silent comics vanished, the comedians who replaced them supplemented their slapstick with verbal wit. Although Chaplin maintained his popularity, these comedians who had polished their acts on stage for years entered the limelight as America entered the Great Depression and desperately needed wisecracking encouragement that these funnymen fed them. The Marx Brothers, Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo, with their peculiar brand of banter that emphasized puns reflected the changes in comedy. Paramount released their films beginning with “The Cocoanuts” (1929), “Animal Crackers”
(1930), “Monkey Business” (1931), “Horse Feathers” (1932) and “Duck Soup” (1933). Chaplin faced other formidable competitors, including Universal Studios’ curmudgeonly snide W. C. Fields and RKO’s buffoonish box office champions Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey.

Chaplin’s dismissal of sound grew out of his success as a mime. The former English music hall pantomimist created his life-long comic persona--the ‘little tramp’--for the 1914 silent comedy The Kid Auto Races at Venice. Chaplin rose through the ranks at various studios until his success with the little tramp enabled him to finance his own studio. Chaplin’s mute tramp appealed to everybody everywhere because body language constituted an international language. Asian audiences appreciated Chaplin’s comic body language as much as Scandinavians. “My own pictures will always be silent,” he assured his audiences. Although he added a synchronized sound track, Chaplin ridiculed talkies in “City Lights.” In the opening scene, when dignitaries dedicate a monument to ‘Peace and Prosperity,’ Chaplin pokes fun at these pretentious people with his use of squawky sound effects.

"City Lights" qualifies as a sweetly sentimental saga about Chaplin's trademark ‘little tramp’ character in his tattered evening clothes and a hat falling hopeless in love with a beautiful but blind flower girl played by Virginia Cherrill. Meanwhile, when the Tramp isn't buying flowers from the heroine and escorting her back to where she lives with her grandmother, he strikes up an on-and-off friendship with a real millionaire. According to the credits, mustached Harry Myers of "Getting Gertie's Garter" (1927) plays an 'eccentric millionaire.' He is eccentric because he lives alone without his wife and has only his butler to care for him. Unhappy, the millionaire either tries to commit suicide or gets plastered and goes from one party to another, even hosting them at his mansion. The Tramp runs into him late one evening when the Millionaire tries to commit suicide by drowning himself. The Tramp gets soaked for saving his new found friend and the friend reciprocates and becomes the Tramp's long-lost friend—that is—until he sobers up and has no memory of their friendship.

In any case, the Tramp learns about a treatment that a foreign doctor has used to help some blind people recover their sight and he sets out to earn the money so that the blind girl can see again. The Tramp tries to earn the money the old-fashioned way by joining the ranks as a city sanitation engineer. In other words, he scoops up animal droppings and hauls them away. In one amusing scene, he tries to avoid a street strewn with animals, only to have a couple of circus elephants stomp up out of nowhere. Eventually, he gets fired for being late back to work after his lunch break. Next door, at a gym, he agrees to box for a share of the purse and his opponent agrees to share. Things take a turn for the worse, when the guy has to leave unexpectedly. It seems that the police are after him. The guy who replaces the fleeing boxer is a dour tough guy who is a little afraid of the Tramp's efforts to ingratiate himself to him. Further, the new guy refuses to share the prize money. In one of the funniest scenes ever, we see the Tramp strenuously avoid blows with the rival boxer. The Tramp keeps the referee between them at times or gets behind the other boxer. This confusion is sheer side-splitting fun. Sadly, the Tramp loses, but he keeps trying to get the girl her money.

Charlie Chaplin does a flawless job directing this sappy love story. He alternates his love story with the friendship with the rich man. The way that he meets the blind flower girl is brilliant. The Tramp is walking along when he spots a cop (cops always scare him) and he ducks into a limo parked in the street. When he comes out the door on the other side, he sets foot on the sidewalk in front of the blind girl. The Tramp falls madly in love at first sight and the limo cruises away with the girl believing that she has sold a flower to a wealthy gentleman instead of a homeless transient. There is a pretty funny dance hall number with the Tramp setting fire to a woman's chair and then her dress. However, the crowning achievement of “City Lights” is its weepy ending. The Tramp has survived a sentence in stir and he meets the blind girl again, but things are definitely changed. Like the short story about the woman in the arena in Rome, "City Lights" asks you to decide for yourself if it has a happy ending or a cynical ending.

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