Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The End of Chaplin

Film: City Lights; Monsieur Verdoux
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on rockin’ flatscreen.

I enjoy silent comedies quite a bit. Of the great silent comedians, I enjoy Harold Lloyd, I have great respect for Chaplin, and I have a deep and abiding love for Buster Keaton. Naturally, this means I watched all of Keaton’s films pretty quickly. Chaplin I’ve been savoring a bit, at least until now. The three comedians were all quite different. Lloyd was in many ways the most American in his characters’ outlook. Keaton offered a more zen outlook on his comedy. Chaplin is all about the pathos.

City Lights doesn’t stray too far from the formula that worked for him his entire career. Like most silent comedies, the plot is very simple. The action tends to drive that simple plot forward very slowly, because the action is more about the slapstick than the actual story. In this case, the plot is pretty easily resolved, with the additional material there only for laughs.

That’s not a bad thing—these are good laughs. Chaplin plays his trademark Tramp character. Early on, he encounters a blind flower seller (Virginia Cherrill) and becomes smitten by her beauty and her tragedy. He also rescues a man (Harry Myers) about to commit suicide. These two things seem unrelated, but will merge as the film closes. It turns out that the man the Tramp rescues is a drunken millionaire. He thanks our hero by taking him out for a night on the town. The problem is that when he wakes up and sobers up, he has no memory of the previous night—not his suicide attempt, his rescue, or the evening that followed.

In the mean time, the Tramp spends time with the blind flower girl, and discovers that there is an expensive operation that can cure her blindness. He also discovers that the girl owes her landlord rent and is about to be evicted. Unable to get the millionaire to remember him, the Tramp takes (and subsequently loses) a job as a street sweeper. Eventually, his only recourse to cash for the girl is to sign up for a boxing match. He makes a deal with the other boxer to throw the fight and split the $50 purse, but is forced to fight another man instead, who won’t take the deal.

Of course, this is a comedy, which means it has to work out in the end. The ending is sweet and heartfelt, if perhaps a bit twee. But it’s cute and impossible not to smile at.

But the plot, sweet as it may be, is not the reason to pay attention here. The whole purpose of the film is to see what Chaplin does throughout. The gags are as good as we’ve come to expect from Chaplin, with the boxing match near the end a true highpoint in not just the film, but in his catalog. It’s silly stuff, the kind of thing that young children would find riotously funny today (at least the non-jaded children, and even some of them). One of Chaplin’s great talents was finding a gag and playing it as many different ways as he could—the back and forth shuffle of Chaplin, his opponent, and the referee here being a prime example.

For many people, City Lights is Chaplin at his finest. That’s a hard thing to argue against, even if my preference might be more for the opening half hour of Modern Times. There’s no doubting that while his last silent film is stronger in places, City Lights is more consistently funny and on plot all the way through.

If anything, I’d have liked this to be a little longer. Chaplin was and is a joy, and a running time of under 90 minutes feels like short change.

That shorter running time may have better served Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux, because at the 90 minute mark here, I was ready for the film to be over, and knew that there was still a good half hour left to go. This is the story of a Bluebeard, a man who marries women and murders them for their money and property. He tells us at the start of the film that life was fine until he lost his job in a bank when the markets crashed. Now, with a wife and child to support, he turned to a different line of work (killing widows) to make ends meet.

We see him at work several times during the course of the film, and as the film starts, we learn from the family of his latest conquest that Verdoux’s latest (and late) wife has just emptied her bank accounts of 60,000 francs. We cut to the man himself cleaning up after the deed and engaging to sell the home. The prospective buyer is another widow who he sets upon wooing, a plot that will take us to near the end of the film.

In the meantime, he is already married not only to his first wife, but to several others, and he proceeds to go on a sort of murder tour around France, bumping off women and collecting on them, spinning crazy stories about impending bank collapses to get them to draw their money out, and then doing the deed and making off with the benefits. One of these wives, Annabella Bonheur (Martha Raye) has a nasty habit of not dying, leaving him in something of a predicament.

Thanks to the Hays Code, Monsieur Verdoux is destined to be caught by the end of the film. Criminals, after all, couldn’t win under the Hays Code, and no one could be seen to truly benefit from the commission of a crime. So naturally, everything will come to a head, and does when the foghorn-voiced Annabella arrives as a guest for his latest wedding.

My problem with Monsieur Verdoux is not that it isn’t well made or that it isn’t entertaining. It’s beautifully filmed and it’s acted well, and there are even a few laughs in it here and there. My problem is that it seems so opposite the typical Chaplin comedy. While terrible things happened to the Tramp all the time, they were always caused by circumstances beyond the poor guy’s control. The Tramp was always lovable and sweet, someone whose tragedies were all the more poignant because we as the audience want him to be okay. Verdoux in this film is cruel and heartless, everything the Tramp seemed to stand against.

I don’t really mind heartlessness, but I don’t like it for its own sake, and that, more or less, is how I took Monsieur Verdoux. Chaplin aims for pitch black comedy, and while it seems impossible that he would ever miss completely, he misses on quite a bit of this. I’m not used to, or much in favor of a Chaplin character who isn’t worth rooting for, and Verdoux is simply not. This film comes off as mean spirited in a lot of ways, and that seems so wrong.

There are other, similar comedies, of course. Arsenic and Old Lace, Kind Hearts and Coronets, and even a film like The Ladykillers cover similar territory, and do it with better humor and a lot more panache. I’m disappointed here, not because this is a Chaplin talkie, but because a film like The Great Dictator was left off the List when it much more rightfully belongs here. Monsieur Verdoux covers territory better mapped by others, and Chaplin is better than playing this sort of rogue, no matter how charming he might appear.

Why to watch City Lights: It’s sweet and heartfelt.
Why not to watch: It’s over too quickly.

Why to watch Monsieur Verdoux: Of the three great silent comedians, only Chaplin made a solid transition to talkies.
Why not to watch: He made better talkies.

14 comments:

  1. City Lights is indeed my fave Chaplin,and you are right,this is the only Chaplin which made me laugh out loud consistently,but what a tearjerker at the end.

    For me,the major difference between Keaton and Chaplin is that Keaton's comedy is more fun,full of brilliant ideas and spectacles and Chaplin's comedy has a universal appeal and is more humane.

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  2. My favorite Chaplin moments come in Modern Times--the feeding machine, the foiled prison break--but that film slows down through the middle. City Lights is much more consistent, and the boxing scene is a classic.

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  3. I've posted the same comment twice, not sure what's going on.

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  4. And yet...it appears to have not posted at all. Odd.

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  5. I've yet to see Monsieur Verdoux, but I've seen many of Chaplin's earlier films, including City Lights. I love Keaton and Lloyd, too. Of the three, I am most disappointed with the 1,001 book's choices for Lloyd's films. Safety Last! is a true classic silent comedy with an image of Lloyd hanging from a clock that has entered popular culture. The Freshman is a great, early football comedy. Neither is in the list. Tell people that a nearly 90 year old film can put them on the edge of their seats, and they don't believe you. I then show them Safety Last! and they change their minds.

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  6. Just before I started officially going through The List, I put up 25 films that I thought were missing. One of the first ones I mentioned is Safety Last for that very reason. Not only is it a great film, it's an iconic film. There are few frames of silent cinema as well known as the shot of Lloyd hanging off the clock. There's a reason that Scorsese had the kids in Hugo sneak into a theater to see that instead of Nosferatu or even The General. It's because it's instantly recognizable.

    Of course, it's also freakin' tremendous. Really, you could pull one of D.W. Griffith's lesser lights and put in another Lloyd.

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    1. I agree. Or do we REALLY need something like 6 or 8 different vampire movies? Or how about the "movies" on the list that aren't even movies, but TV miniseries? They may be good, even great, but they aren't movies. They are keeping something else off the list.

      Instead of removing still worthy, recent movies (i.e. Children of Men) to make way for slightly more recent films, they should go back through and remove some of the older ones on the list.

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    2. Yes, dammit! Vampires are terribly over-represented here! There are three versions of Dracula, two Nosferatus, plus Vampyr, and that's just off the top of my head. As for other monsters, we get three zombies (two-Romero style, one Voodoo), two werewolves, three Frankenstein-style (and one a parody). Some of the classics--The Mummy, The Invisible Man--get left off.

      I'm still pissed that Amelie got bumped.

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    3. Wow, I didn't realize they had removed Amelie. That's just ridiculous.

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  7. City Lights is a very emotional film and many people like it. Like you, I prefer Modern Times, but this is still a valiant effort.

    I like Monsieur Verdoux a lot. The black humor is right up my alley. Yes, it's a big departure for Chaplin, but in light of all that happened to him in America with the Joan Barry case.

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  8. to finish off my comment, I think the film was ultra-satirical.

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    1. Oh, I think it was, too. I guess I just wasn't totally prepared for the guy who had always been sweet and charming to be vicious and charming. I think I might like it more on a rewatch.

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  9. I was once asked, believe it or not, how I would explain cinema to an alien race. My stock answer for this would be to show them the final scene of City Lights. There are films I like more (though City Lights is in my all-time top ten) but that final scene, when the now-seeing flower girl releases who the tramp really is, is the pure definition of what is so great and wonderful and quite powerful about the seventh art.

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    1. It is a beautiful moment. It's funny, though--my wife sat through the end of the film with me, and when the last shot ended, she turned to me and said, "No kiss?"

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