THE FIRST TAKE CLUB
Filling in those filmic blind spots, one person at a time
#4 CITY LIGHTS
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.
CITY LIGHTS IS OUT NOW ON DVD, BLU-RAY AND DOWNLOAD