Fill­ing in those filmic blind spots, one per­son at a time

Empire (UK) - - REVIEW - Char­lie Brown


THE LAT­EST MEM­BER of The First Take Club is one of the finest comedy writers around. Not only did he co-write TV shows such as Fresh Meat and Baby­lon, and Christo­pher Mor­ris’ film Four Lions, but he’s the co-cre­ator of sem­i­nal sit­com Peep Show. So when we asked Sam Bain to choose a film he hadn’t seen from Empire’s 301 Great­est Movies Of All Time list (pub­lished in 2014), cor­rect that over­sight and then tell us all about it, it seemed nat­u­ral that he would grav­i­tate to­wards a clas­sic comedy. Namely, Char­lie Chap­lin’s 1931 clas­sic, City Lights, in which Chap­lin’s The Tramp tries to raise money to save the sight of a blind girl with whom he’s in love. Over to you, Sam… So ba­si­cally I’ve never seen a Char­lie Chap­lin film. Ob­vi­ously I’m aware who Char­lie Chap­lin is — that black-and-white guy with the lit­tle mous­tache who tried to con­quer Europe — but I’ve never ac­tu­ally seen one of his films.

Also, I have a prej­u­dice against el­derly comedy. As any­one who has sat gri­mac­ing through the ‘light re­lief’ in a Shake­speare play will tell you, comedy doesn’t age well.

The open­ing scene of City Lights did not fill me with con­fi­dence. The ka­zoo voices were wor­ry­ing. Ad­mir­ers may mourn many things about silent cinema, but I don’t imag­ine ka­zoo voices are one of them.

For­tu­nately it’s up­hill from there. I ad­mired the sim­plic­ity of the plot — Lit­tle Tramp falls in

love with Blind Flower Girl then pre­tends to be rich to woo her and save her from poverty. As with many mod­ern comedy scripts, its ba­sic func­tion is to be a wash­ing line for Chap­lin to hang comic set-pieces on.

And those are bril­liantly re­alised. It’s a thing of won­der to see phys­i­cal comedy come to life with such pre­ci­sion. The first set-piece to make me laugh was The Tramp sav­ing the mil­lion­aire from sui­cide. The fact the film in­cor­po­rates dark themes such as sui­cide, poverty and home­less­ness adds to the laughs — there’s some­thing real at stake. The set-pieces at a night­club, a party at the mil­lion­aire’s house and the box­ing ring are also a joy to watch. The sheer level of tech­ni­cal skill bog­gles the mind.

The film is mostly long-shots. I’m guess­ing close-ups only re­ally came to promi­nence dur­ing the sound era, when di­a­logue made the psy­chol­ogy of the char­ac­ters and what they were (or weren’t) re­veal­ing in their faces so im­por­tant.

From a screen­writ­ing point of view, the re­la­tion­ship between the Tramp and the mil­lion­aire im­pressed me most. The mil­lion­aire [Harry Myers] is a comic take on Jekyll and Hyde — he con­sid­ers the Tramp his best friend and show­ers him with money when drunk, but has no idea who the Tramp is when sober. It’s bril­liantly played by Chap­lin and Myers, who brings a huge amount. Myers has my favourite throw­away gag when he lit­er­ally throws a photo of his ex-wife out of shot.

The more fa­mous re­la­tion­ship between the Tramp and Flower Girl [Vir­ginia Cher­rill] I found less en­tranc­ing. On first en­coun­ter­ing her, my wife Wendy won­dered whether she was re­ally blind or fak­ing. A de­cep­tion like that would have given the char­ac­ter at least two di­men­sions, but ev­i­dently the bud­get of the film could only stretch to one.

Oh, and the ti­tle is mis­lead­ing — there aren’t many city lights on show, and what city we’re in seems hard to iden­tify, as the film seems to be en­tirely shot on Hol­ly­wood back­lots. Over­all it was good to fill in a hole in my cin­e­matic CV and have a laugh while do­ing so. Although I’m surer than ever that the use of ka­zoo voices should be re­stricted to the teacher in car­toons.


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