Now entering the home stretch of this countdown, we have come to the three films that I consider perfect. When I use the term “perfect film,” I mean one that succeeds at everything it set out to do. There is not one bad or average scene in these films, no wasted bits of dialogue, every performance delivers its emotional punch, and the pacing never drags on more than it needs to. Every part of these films is meticulously planned out to create a movie that is nothing short of a masterpiece.
These are the three films that deserve to be put in a museum and preserved for all eternity, to showcase how powerful and varied cinema can be as an art form.
For the first of these three films, we must go back to the beginnings of cinema. If there is one reoccurring trend among my favorite films, it is to showcase film history and films about filmmaking. “Sunset Boulevard” and “Singin’ In The Rain” use the end of the silent era of movies to enhance their scope yet doing vastly different variations, with one being a light-hearted musical and the other a film noir. “Ed Wood” is a biographical picture on one of the worst filmmakers in Hollywood, but chooses to portray him in a positive light by making him an eternal optimist. On the other side of that you have “Ran,” which was as much about Akira Kurosawa’s downward spiral in the Japanese film industry as it was about its medieval lord.
Suffice to say, movies about movies are the ones I cannot get enough of.
While this entry isn’t about filmmaking, the history behind why it was made makes it stand out more than any film from that era. Now that two films on this countdown have talked about the end of silent films and beginning of talkies, it is time to look at a film made during that era, Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 comedy “City Lights.”
There was a time where Charlie Chaplin’s character of The Tramp was the most recognizable image in the world. A simple design of a lovable guy, always on the receiving end of the authorities, who only seemed to have a need in helping others. In the dozens of short films released between 1914 and 1919, as well as feature-length films like “The Kid” and “The Gold Rush,” the Tramp would make us laugh with countless slap-stick sequences and tug at our heart-strings just seconds later.
This is what made Charlie Chaplin a household name – his ability to bounce between comedy and drama so easily, yet pull off both so well. Perhaps it was because his stories were simple. They had to be, because of the technical limitations at the time. Chaplin relied on his body and unbreaking camera movement to make the audience laugh, while using his face and body movement to get them invested in his struggle.
This took a drastic change when sound was introduced in 1927.
Chaplin, who grew up as a vaudeville performer, believed that it was much easier to reach someone by using visuals instead of audio. That by talking to someone instead of showing it, is only distracting and annoying. As such, Chaplin was resistant to ever making a talkie, despite insistence from film studios.
By the beginning of the 1930s, there were no more silent films being made. Everyone wanted to watch talking pictures and found it hard to relate to characters that didn’t talk like everyone else. So Chaplin set out to prove a point – that even if talkies were the only type of films being made, silent cinema could still be just as powerful as any other film. That there would always be a place in the world for characters like The Tramp.
The result was his most emotional film with some of the greatest comedic long takes in cinema history, with “City Lights.”
The film follows Chaplin’s character The Tramp around a growing metropolis, as he gets into all sorts of antics with cops, a dance club and a drunk millionaire that he befriends after the Tramp saves his life. But the one who catches the Tramp’s eye is a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) that thinks he is a rich man who can afford to buy all of her flowers. The Tramp decides to play along with this charade so that she may live a happier life.
Right out of the gate, “City Lights” takes the opportunity to mock talkies. The opening scene depicts the city officials opening up a new monument to “peace and prosperity.” When the representatives get up to speak, we only hear the sound of a kazoo (played by Chaplin) in the place of their talking. As if to say the words coming out of their mouths are nonsense and pointless dribble.
This is followed by the reveal of the Tramp sleeping on their peace monument, and doesn’t realize that he isn’t supposed to be there. His first reaction to people yelling at him is to tip is bowler hat in their direction. It’s not like he went out of his way to hurt anyone, the Tramp doesn’t know any better.
Chaplin had considered making “City Lights” into a talkie, as he couldn’t make the story work at certain points, in particular making the blind girl think the Tramp was a millionaire. But he decided against it, though still giving the film the full orchestral treatment and sound effects throughout the film.
Instead, Chaplin lets the Tramp’s body language and pantomime be the dialogue for us. The world around him looks down on the Tramp, mostly because of his social status and appearance. He is a bum with no friends, but wants nothing more than to make friends with everybody. Every character in this film talks at the Tramp, but he hardly says a word. Then again, he doesn’t need to.
This is what made the Tramp so endearing – He chooses to rarely speak, and lets his actions speak for him.
Those actions throughout “City Lights” are some of the best Chaplin put to film. Every comedic sequence in this film is memorable for one reason or another and still make me laugh simply thinking about them. The previously mentioned opening sequence with the peace monument has the Tramp attempting to climb down, with his pants getting stuck on the sword of the statue while attempting to stay in one place with “The Star-Spangled Banner” plays. While all of this is going on, the Tramp simply tips his hat to anyone yelling at him.
The comedy throughout “City Lights” seems so effortless that it feels smooth and elegant, like a ballerina. In fact, that’s how I would describe this film – as a comedic ballet, where one comedy bit glides right into the next one while making it look easy.
In one particular instance, the Tramp and millionaire go to a dance club (after a few drinks, most of which gets poured down the Tramp’s pants). The floor is slippery from all the dancing and there is only table left. When the Tramp’s chair gets taken by the nearby table, he steals another chair and every partakes in a game of musical chairs, resulting in the Tramp wanting to fight someone else, only to slip on the floor.
But the shining instance comes when the Tramp must take part in a boxing match. Being a coward, the Tramp spends the entire first round hiding behind the referee, bobbing and weaving with the movements of the ref, much to the irritation of his opponent. In the later rounds, the Tramp gets the rope to the bell tied around his neck, so anytime he goes to his corner to rest, the bell rings and he starts the round again.
Once the comedy gets going, it never stops. There are few cuts and edits between these sequences, so the movement of the Tramp matching the referee and the look of disgust on his opponent’s face makes it all the more gut-wrenching hilarious.
I have no problem saying “City Lights” is the funniest film I have ever seen. There is a timeless quality to it that you don’t get out of most other comedies.
But, like so many other great Chaplin films, “City Lights” gives us a poignant romance that makes the Tramp more than just a bum that gets into a lot of slap stick.
The flower girl is blind, so she cannot see the Tramp for who he is – a bum. She can only judge him by what he is – Generous, giving and selfless.
In one of the final scenes in the film, the Tramp has secured $1,000 from the millionaire, and immediately heads to the flower girl to give her the money for her rent. As he is about to, he takes $100 and puts it in his pocket, for his own needs. But he kisses her hand, looks at her and gives her the extra $100, simply shrugging the whole thing off.
In “City Lights,” people look at the Tramp and see his baggy pants, torn jacket, pale face and beat-up cane, and stereotype him as something to avoid. This makes the Tramp little more than an outsider. But the blind girl doesn’t see that, and is only aware of his actions. She may think he is a millionaire, but it comes across less like she cares about his money and more about his kind and caring nature. She constantly says that he doesn’t need to do this for her, but he is more than happy to help her out.
This all leads up to the ending, which I will not spoil, where the situation is reserved and gives us one of the most emotional moments in cinema. That it isn’t about what your social status is in life, but that you accept people for who they are. That a tramp can be just as rich as a millionaire if you give him a chance.
The fall of silent cinema is unfortunate, considering that it has a power that films today lack. Without dialogue, without the need to be relatable and realistic, silent films used their given tools to transport us to a place where cultural boundaries didn’t exist. These films stay with you far longer than most sound pictures because they don’t need to talk to tell a story.
Yet, these films have been forgotten. Lost in time due to being so far behind the times. While filmmakers like Charlie Chaplin excelled at silent cinema, it is now a blessing and curse. No one will go out and see his films unless they actively search for them. But to those that do find his films, they will witness something magical.