“Tomorrow the birds will sing.”
Last year the world was reminded that even with the – what now is standard – technological advancements of being able to record and playback sound in sync with the video aren’t particularly necessary to make a good film. So long before The Artist won best picture there was a time before this kind of filmmaking was niche, which I guess is kind of obvious.
Charlie Chaplin is an icon of American cinema. He is the first man mentioned, next to Groucho Marx and The Three Stooges, in the world of physical slapstick comedy of the budding 30s. I’ve spoken before about comedy from this era before – when I reviewed The General – and spoke about how at times, especially with comedy, the material, approach and entire style of the comedy itself can be so dated that it just isn’t ever really going to work anymore. However, City Lights manages to subvert any expectations so quickly that within the span of three minutes (i.e. exactly how long it takes for Chaplin to appear on screen) I forgot I was watching a movie older than my parents and found myself in an uncontrollable fit of laughter as Chaplin maneuvered himself down from a statue.
Something about physical comedy makes it very hard for me to explain why it’s funny or even why it works. What you’re basically seeing is someone try to do the simplest thing, whether it be waking up in the morning, stepping back and forth in front of a shop window or even helping his friend get home safely, what you’re basically watching is this person consistently fail to succeed at his task and not concede to defeat. Why does this make me – and the general public of 1931 – laugh till we literally pee our pants? I don’t know, but for some reason we do.
A laugh is something that’s incomparable in life, but sometimes that’s not enough to give a movie staying power to remain in the social consciousness for more than eight decades without having something more and it does. The backbone of the film is the romantic tale of Chaplin and Virginia Cherrill, playing the blind flower girl. It’s amazing how much Chaplin as a writer, actor and director is able to portray across with almost no dialogue in this film where it comes to chemistry and tone. While silent films have dialogue cards which fill in information here and there this movie had very little, and I do still consider the very easily read scenes where characters are talking to one another and utilize their body language to communicate, what would normally today be left to verbal communication, the content of the film and the direction of the scene. It’s lovely, and always a treat to see execution like this in a film.