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City Lights

City Lights  

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  1. 1. Does City Lights belong on the AFI list?

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  • Poll closed on 04/05/19 at 07:00 AM

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Paul & Amy tumble through 1931's Charlie Chaplin comedy City Lights! They ask whether the film presaged the structure of modern comedies, compare Chaplin's style to Buster Keaton, and ask where the line is between genius and megalomaniac. Plus: Chaplin expert Dan Kamin talks about working with Robert Downey Jr. and the early life of Chaplin.

For Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs week, call  the Unspooled voicemail line at 747-666-5824 with your pick for a new dwarf! Follow us on Twitter @Unspooled, get more info at unspooledpod.com, and don’t forget to rate, review & subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts. Photo credit: Kim Troxall

Edited by DanEngler

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Regarding The Tramp’s voice, I always enheard(?) it as being British. Honestly, Chaplin’s real accent is pretty close to what I hear in my head, although The Tramp would probably sound a little less posh.

As people who follow me on Letterboxd know, in preparation for this episode I also watched The Kid, Modern Times, and The Gold Rush and what struck me is just how American they are. I always saw The Tramp as being more of a British creature and thought his movies all took place in England. It was weird to see him in California, Alaska, and whatever city City Lights takes place in. It was also jarring for me when you finally do hear the Tramp’s voice in Modern Times. It was not at all what I was expecting. Granted, the character himself is doing a bit so it might not exactly be his “genuine” voice either. But still...I wasn’t into it.

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Chaplin talks in The Great Dictator, so the kazoo is definitely not the only time his "voice" has been on film

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He talks in his later films, including Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight (both good films, though departures from his Little Tramp silent films). I believe Great Dictator was the only time he talked as some variation of the Little Tramp character.

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I got confused and accidentally watched Modern Times instead of this one first, but that made for an interesting comparison. City Lights is worthy of the list, but I'm with Amy in that I'd pick Modern Times as the better and more influential Chaplin film.

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1 hour ago, sycasey 2.0 said:

I got confused and accidentally watched Modern Times instead of this one first, but that made for an interesting comparison. City Lights is worthy of the list, but I'm with Amy in that I'd pick Modern Times as the better and more influential Chaplin film.

I watched both this week as well, and I ended up liking City Lights more. Modern Times was great, but I didn’t find it as emotionally satisfying. It also didn’t feel as cohesive as a narrative - more like a series of bits strung together. That being said, I loved The Gamin in it! She was absolutely delightful. 

Megalomania aside, one thing I like about Chaplin is he allows his co-stars to really shine. The Kid, The Blind Girl, and The Gamin are all as important to the story as the Tramp himself. I mean, I’m not sure if “billing” was as big of a deal back then (although I suspect it was), but I found it interesting that Chaplin always listed himself and The Tramp last. It felt almost gentlemanly to me and showed off the type of humility that he espoused as being so critical to his success. In fact, one of the main reasons I didn’t respond as positively to TGR as the others is because I found it to be the first movie of his where I felt like the secondary characters were lacking.

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1 minute ago, Cameron H. said:

That being said, I loved The Gamin in it! She was absolutely delightful.

Paulette Goddard was at least 50% of the reason I preferred Modern Times.

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7 hours ago, Cameron H. said:

I watched both this week as well, and I ended up liking City Lights more. Modern Times was great, but I didn’t find it as emotionally satisfying. It also didn’t feel as cohesive as a narrative - more like a series of bits strung together. That being said, I loved The Gamin in it! She was absolutely delightful. 

Megalomania aside, one thing I like about Chaplin is he allows his co-stars to really shine. The Kid, The Blind Girl, and The Gamin are all as important to the story as the Tramp himself. I mean, I’m not sure if “billing” was as big of a deal back then (although I suspect it was), but I found it interesting that Chaplin always listed himself and The Tramp last. It felt almost gentlemanly to me and showed off the type of humility that he espoused as being so critical to his success. In fact, one of the main reasons I didn’t respond as positively to TGR as the others is because I found it to be the first movie of his where I felt like the secondary characters were lacking.

Agreed 100% on all counts.  City Lights is my favorite of his because the story holds together the best.  Modern Times is my second favorite of his silents because he gives the other characters some development and room to shine.  And I was disappointed by The Gold Rush because the story and the side-characters were severely lacking.  It feels like three or four shorts that were just tacked together.  (But we'll talk about that more when we cover those films.)

I agree with Paul that City Lights has so much of the DNA of modern comedy, though I wonder if he'll say the same thing about The Gold Rush, which came first.  So I'll add on that City Lights really has the DNA of the modern rom-com.  The tramp and the blind girl have a meet-cute involving mistaken identity, he then courts her between adventures hanging with his more bro-ey best friend, learns of a problem that she has, and undergoes a ridiculous challenge to try to solve the problem.  All these beats feel like rom-com tropes now, but they seem new when watching City Lights.  It's no surprise why AFI named this their #1 romantic comedy of all time.

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The museum in the city I grew up in had an entire section of one of the floors done up to recreate my hometown as it was in the 1920s. One of the things they had was an old fashion movie theater in which they would play the films of Charlie Chaplin. My earliest memories of this movie (although outside the 1920s time period) are sitting in the theater with my grandfather and watching the movies. That probably taints a little my ideas on this film but so be it. This film is absolutely charming. It is a delight in every which way. The fact that you can have such great and funny scenes as the ballroom and the boxing match and still deliver a story that is affecting is really telling as to the power of Chaplin. I think like Paul said it is that ability to weave a story and get real emotion while delivering on the laughs and set pieces that really drives this film over his others as being the top one. This is the guide to a comedy film.  

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I'm curious with how many people are in line with Amy in thinking that she rejects him at the end. Maybe I am a hopeless romantic or something but I thought it was 100% clear that she accepts him for who he is. I think she does the mental math a bit in that moment as well. He's poor and penniless now, but he gave her a lot of money before going away for awhile. She might not have all the facts right, but she understands that whether he was rich or not before he gave up everything he had for her with no expectation of anything in return other than her happiness. Her pulling his hand in closer to her chest says it all. Again, the brilliance of little actions telling a story rather than words.

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I think they do probably fall in love. I don't think this is a cynical story. It's about a woman gaining sight, and a man gaining love, a millionaire being clowned. It doesn't seem to fit to me that suddenly at the very end, he wouldn't get the girl after going through all that. 

As I said on Letterboxd, I don't really consider City Lights a comedy. That probably sounds insane, but I don't think its comedic bits are notable (except for the boxing). But as a story being told through cinema, it's pretty close to perfect.

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On 3/29/2019 at 10:37 PM, Cam Bert said:

I'm curious with how many people are in line with Amy in thinking that she rejects him at the end. Maybe I am a hopeless romantic or something but I thought it was 100% clear that she accepts him for who he is. I think she does the mental math a bit in that moment as well. He's poor and penniless now, but he gave her a lot of money before going away for awhile. She might not have all the facts right, but she understands that whether he was rich or not before he gave up everything he had for her with no expectation of anything in return other than her happiness. Her pulling his hand in closer to her chest says it all. Again, the brilliance of little actions telling a story rather than words.

Yeah, I wasn’t quite sure where she was coming from on that one, but I suppose the ending can be a little bit ambiguous in that there isn’t a huge moment of “Of course I love you!” I think that, perhaps, this was intentional on Chaplin’s part as a litmus test for the audience’s own cynicism.

The entire movie is The Tramp’s journey towards acceptance. When people notice him at all, (as fully himself and not in “disguise” as a sanitation worker or boxer) they immediately judge, ridicule, and shun him. The movie even opens (the statue scene) with him being hidden, revealed, and immediately rejected. This same reaction is echoed throughout the movie in The Tramp’s relationship with the millionaire. When the Rich Man is blind stinking drunk, he accepts The Tramp; but when he is sober, he rejects him. Based on everything we’ve seen up until the end, there’s every reason to believe that The Blind Woman will follow this same pattern. And she does - at first. However, he then asks her, “You can see now?” and she replied, “Yes, I can see now.” (i.e. see him for who he is) And instead of pushing him away like everyone else, she pulls his hand toward her and places his hand on her heart. 

Does this mean that they are going to fall in love forever and have a million babies? I don’t know. However, I’m not sure if romantic love is entirely the point either. I think her response is our ultimately our response. After everything we’ve seen, do we accept or reject him?

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12 hours ago, Cam Bert said:

I'm curious with how many people are in line with Amy in thinking that she rejects him at the end. Maybe I am a hopeless romantic or something but I thought it was 100% clear that she accepts him for who he is. I think she does the mental math a bit in that moment as well. He's poor and penniless now, but he gave her a lot of money before going away for awhile. She might not have all the facts right, but she understands that whether he was rich or not before he gave up everything he had for her with no expectation of anything in return other than her happiness. Her pulling his hand in closer to her chest says it all. Again, the brilliance of little actions telling a story rather than words.

I also didn't understand Amy's line of thinking there.  I'll add to the points others have made by saying that I don't think the final moment is about "falling in love" or "not falling in love."  Was she in love with him when they were together before?  I'm inclined to say yes, and that when she sees him at the end, she's not so much developing new feelings as she is rediscovering and recalibrating her old feelings.  As Cam Bert says, maybe she does a little math and realizes that his generosity is exponentially more than she had thought, as his sacrifice was more than just a financial one.  But as Cameron H. says, the important thing is that she accepts him for who he is.  If she wasn't in love with him when she was blind, she's not going to be in love with him now, but she's still clearly happy to reconnect with this person who had such a huge impact on her life.  And that happiness is regardless of his social status, but her appreciation of him is perhaps even augmented by it.

That's how I read it, but ultimately it seems silly to break it down so much.  However you read it, it's a beautiful scene.

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Amy marveled at how the audience applauded for 90 seconds when Chaplin received his honorary Oscar. But that clip on Youtube, posted on the Oscars Youtube channel, is highly edited. The ovation in real life lasted TWELVE MINUTES! The longest in Academy history....that is crazy.

It was great that they got a true Chaplin expert like Dan Kamin; I hope they can bring him back for the remaining films.

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Yes, this is one of the greatest movies of all time and deserves to be on the list, despite the fact that the heroine of our story mercilessly  laughs as a homeless man is terrorized by a gang of teens.  

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This was my first Chaplin film, and I loved it. I’ve seen lots of films by Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, but always resisted Chaplin for some uncertain reason. I think it had to do with the way the Little Tramp character is all over pop culture, and my incorrect view of Chaplin as overly sentimental and sappy.

Like Amy, I found myself laughing out loud at City Lights probably more than any other silent comedy I’ve watched. The boxing scene is physical comedy perfection, and every single actor  involved does an amazing job.

One small observation about the boxing match and its treatment of the Black boxer. It seems a lot of the films I’ve seen from the era either marginalize their Black characters as servants or in similar stereotypical roles, or they present them as minstrel show-like caricatures in an attempt at comedy. It was nice and a little surprising to see the boxer presented as just another character in the scene.

City Lights definitely belongs in the AFI top 100.

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Can we once and for all get rid of this silly "X has too many entries on the list" notion?  It's the AFI Top 100 MOVIES.  It's not the top 100 directors or top 100 actors, it's the top 100 MOVIES.   So if a particular director or actor has more than one film on the list SO WHAT?   People like Alfred Hitchcock, Meryl Streep, Steven Spielberg, etc are considered the greatest artists of all time because they have made many of the greatest movies of all time.  They're not just one hit wonders or by a fluke made a great movie.   Also, how far do you take this "they have already have a spot on the top 100"?  Do you say each writer only gets at most one entry?  Each editor?  Each cinematographer?   Is there room for only one film inspired by a Shakespeare play?  It just gets silly at some point, doesn't it?   It's the greatest movies of all time, not a little league baseball game.  We don't need to give out participation awards.

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On 3/29/2019 at 10:37 PM, Cam Bert said:

I'm curious with how many people are in line with Amy in thinking that she rejects him at the end. Maybe I am a hopeless romantic or something but I thought it was 100% clear that she accepts him for who he is. I think she does the mental math a bit in that moment as well. He's poor and penniless now, but he gave her a lot of money before going away for awhile. She might not have all the facts right, but she understands that whether he was rich or not before he gave up everything he had for her with no expectation of anything in return other than her happiness. Her pulling his hand in closer to her chest says it all. Again, the brilliance of little actions telling a story rather than words.

I'm holding off on watching this until the criterion channel launches next week because it's probably going to be on there (and doesn't make much sense for me to rent it in that time).  It looks like I last saw this five years ago, so my memory is spotty, but I seem to remember thinking her response was more of an, "ooohhhh..." which was a likely precursor to rejection.

But that's a vague memory to a movie that didn't really leave much of an impression on me.  (If I were to vote for this movie, it'd be like The Searchers, mostly in deference to the critical consensus).

I did want to throw out a couple of topics on silent movies though.

One reason I've heard cited as to why they didn't want to move away from silent to sound was the international appeal.  You can easily translate a silent film internationally without much if any loss of quality by just changing the intertitle cards.  I can't help but wonder if some of Chaplin's lasting international popularity was... amplified by his major successes were probably amongst the last major US films that international audiences could easily watch.  Just a thought.

Based off of my recollection of Chaplin and the majority of this comes from that "recent" rewatch of City Lights, I'm not really that big on Chaplin, but did enjoy Buster Keaton shorts I watched (not so much The General, more-so the The High Sign sticking in my memory - mainly because I enjoyed his deadpan a lot more).  Granted, I'm also recalling that some of my favorite silent film experiences were when they were accompanied with live music that was often anachronistic for the film (e.g. the afore-mentioned Buster Keaton shorts were accompanied by people playing blues-grass and I remember seeing a Lon Chaney film where he was a double-thumbed murderer/thief working at a circus where the band played amongst other things, an instrumental rendition of The Pixies' Where is my Mind?).  I mention that with regards to how Paul tends to tune out after a bit while watching a silent film.  I wonder how much the music choice might be affecting his viewing experience.  Though I found Man with a Movie CameraThe Passion of Joan of Arc, and Cabinet of Caligari all really good regardless.  Though, those are older silent films.  I wonder if Paul likes Mel Brook's Silent Film.  More modern silent films that I can think of are mainly Guy Maddin's films (e.g. Cowards Bend the Knee), but that's probably more arthouse than what a lot of people here would like (based on what I've seen people say they hate - Man with a Movie Camera would also probably fall into this category since it was consciously trying to be experimental).

 

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44 minutes ago, ol' eddy wrecks said:

I'm holding off on watching this until the criterion channel launches next week because it's probably going to be on there (and doesn't make much sense for me to rent it in that time).  It looks like I last saw this five years ago, so my memory is spotty, but I seem to remember thinking her response was more of an, "ooohhhh..." which was a likely precursor to rejection.

The whole thing is on YouTube.

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On 3/29/2019 at 10:37 PM, Cam Bert said:

I'm curious with how many people are in line with Amy in thinking that she rejects him at the end. Maybe I am a hopeless romantic or something but I thought it was 100% clear that she accepts him for who he is. I think she does the mental math a bit in that moment as well. He's poor and penniless now, but he gave her a lot of money before going away for awhile. She might not have all the facts right, but she understands that whether he was rich or not before he gave up everything he had for her with no expectation of anything in return other than her happiness. Her pulling his hand in closer to her chest says it all. Again, the brilliance of little actions telling a story rather than words.

So I think Amy's interpretation of the ending is completely at odds with what the movie has to say. Here's this Tramp who has nothing, sleeping on a statute, and he happens upon a wealthy man who seemingly has everything to live for, but is really a suicidal alcoholic. In my interpretation, the Tramp sees the pain the rich man is in, and sees him as a person (not just some wealthy schmuck), and it's that humanity that forges their unlikely friendship. And of course, the flower girl is blind, and only thinks the Tramp is rich because she hears the car door when they first meet, and he takes her around in the car, but when she goes home to her grandmother she says he's rich, but he's "so much more" than that. Despite being blind, she gets to know him as he really is. Then, after he's worked to get her sight back, and she sees him for the first time, I interpret her reaction to understand that his gift to her meant so much more because he was poor and, though he could have used that money for himself, he used it to get her sight. And then when she ends with something like, "yes, I can see now" she sees not just his appearance, but who he is as a man, as a person, as someone who loves her and cares for her, when it seems no one but her Grandmother even gave her a second look. So if she rejects him because she sees him, it ruins the whole point of the plot. 

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Amy has definitely had some cynical takes on these movies' romantic subplots that I do not subscribe to.

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1 hour ago, sycasey 2.0 said:

Amy has definitely had some cynical takes on these movies' romantic subplots that I do not subscribe to.

I'm hoping she goes cynical about Snow White tomorrow

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1 hour ago, AlmostAGhost said:

I'm hoping she goes cynical about Snow White tomorrow

If she doesn't then I'll be right here on the boards to do it for her lol. I have some thoughts.

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