Is CITY LIGHTS a great comedy?

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David B Pearson
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Is CITY LIGHTS a great comedy?

Postby David B Pearson » Wed Nov 24, 2010 9:19 pm

In my mind... no.

Great film? Sure.
Great drama? Sure.
Great comedy? Well... not really. Some funny moments, but it doesn't hold up well under repeated viewings, especially in the context of the dramatic elements, that IMHO overwhelm it.

The ending is NOT a barrel of laughs.

And being blind CAN be as funny as hell -- see Mr. Muckle.

DBP

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Re: Is CITY LIGHTS a great comedy?

Postby Joe Migliore » Wed Nov 24, 2010 10:34 pm

David B Pearson wrote:In my mind... no.

Great film? Sure.
Great drama? Sure.
Great comedy? Well... not really. Some funny moments, but it doesn't hold up well under repeated viewings, especially in the context of the dramatic elements, that IMHO overwhelm it.

The ending is NOT a barrel of laughs.

And being blind CAN be as funny as hell -- see Mr. Muckle.

DBP


It's certainly greater than the sum of it's parts. While I believe that CITY LIGHTS is Chaplin's best silent feature, I would never claim that it's his funniest. What makes it great is that only Chaplin could have made it. I would apply the same standard to THE GENERAL, THE KID BROTHER, and even THREE'S A CROWD. (I know I'll catch hell for that last one.) These films represent the very essence of what makes these artists who they are, and why they aren't some other comedian. THE NAVIGATOR, SAFETY LAST, and THE STRONG MAN all clock more laughs, (as does THE GOLD RUSH), but they already made those films. It's the same reason why Quentin Tarantino is the only director not trying to make PULP FICTION.

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Re: Is CITY LIGHTS a great comedy?

Postby Gary Johnson » Wed Nov 24, 2010 11:20 pm

Come on Fellas!
The opening surprise appearance in the park, the suicide attempt, the night on the town (in fact, all of the scenes involving the millionaire) the boxing match and my favorite gag in the film; trolling for cigarette butts while driving a limousine. It is a comedy. All of the so-called drama is merely Chaplin treating the romance portion of the film a bit more seriously than Wheeler & Woolsey would but Charlie had been doing this since THE BANK (1915).

Gary J.

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Re: Is CITY LIGHTS a great comedy?

Postby David B Pearson » Fri Nov 26, 2010 12:07 pm

Gary Johnson wrote:Come on Fellas!
The opening surprise appearance in the park, the suicide attempt, the night on the town (in fact, all of the scenes involving the millionaire) the boxing match and my favorite gag in the film; trolling for cigarette butts while driving a limousine. It is a comedy. All of the so-called drama is merely Chaplin treating the romance portion of the film a bit more seriously than Wheeler & Woolsey would but Charlie had been doing this since THE BANK (1915).

Gary J.


I disagree.

CITY LIGHTS isn't a bit more serious.... it's a hell of a lot more serious.

The scenes with the millionaire are there to set up dramatic tension later in the film -- and indeed leads to the Tramp's ending up with a rather unfunny term in jail -- while the fight sequence is undercut by the knowledge the Tramp MUST have that money (especially if one has the knowledge of what's coming).

As for the rest, if CITY LIGHTS was meant to be comedy, it is WOEFULLY thin stuff for three years work.
If anything, the comic bits work as comedy RELIEF for the dramatics, not as the center of the story.

Compare this with THE KID, THE GOLD RUSH, THE CIRCUS, Lloyd's THE KID BROTHER, or Keaton's OUR HOSPITALITY, where the secondary dramatics are there to create the comic situations, and actually support the comedy. In CITY LIGHTS, the reverse is true.

But let me be more blunt.
TWO TARS is a GREAT comedy.
THE BOAT is a GREAT comedy.
MIGHTY LIKE A MOOSE is a GREAT comedy.
WHY WORRY? is a GREAT comedy.
THE PAWNSHOP is a GREAT comedy.

CITY LIGHTS probably doesn't qualify AS a comedy, much less a great one.

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Re: Is CITY LIGHTS a great comedy?

Postby Richard M Roberts » Fri Nov 26, 2010 2:33 pm

David B Pearson wrote:
Gary Johnson wrote:Come on Fellas!
The opening surprise appearance in the park, the suicide attempt, the night on the town (in fact, all of the scenes involving the millionaire) the boxing match and my favorite gag in the film; trolling for cigarette butts while driving a limousine. It is a comedy. All of the so-called drama is merely Chaplin treating the romance portion of the film a bit more seriously than Wheeler & Woolsey would but Charlie had been doing this since THE BANK (1915).

Gary J.


I disagree.

CITY LIGHTS isn't a bit more serious.... it's a hell of a lot more serious.

The scenes with the millionaire are there to set up dramatic tension later in the film -- and indeed leads to the Tramp's ending up with a rather unfunny term in jail -- while the fight sequence is undercut by the knowledge the Tramp MUST have that money (especially if one has the knowledge of what's coming).

As for the rest, if CITY LIGHTS was meant to be comedy, it is WOEFULLY thin stuff for three years work.
If anything, the comic bits work as comedy RELIEF for the dramatics, not as the center of the story.

Compare this with THE KID, THE GOLD RUSH, THE CIRCUS, Lloyd's THE KID BROTHER, or Keaton's OUR HOSPITALITY, where the secondary dramatics are there to create the comic situations, and actually support the comedy. In CITY LIGHTS, the reverse is true.

But let me be more blunt.
TWO TARS is a GREAT comedy.
THE BOAT is a GREAT comedy.
MIGHTY LIKE A MOOSE is a GREAT comedy.
WHY WORRY? is a GREAT comedy.
THE PAWNSHOP is a GREAT comedy.

CITY LIGHTS probably doesn't qualify AS a comedy, much less a great one.




Oh don’t be silly, of course CITY LIGHTS is a comedy. That said, I will have to admit that it has never been as high on my Chaplin favorite list as it seems to be with others. I think it is technically the sloppiest of Chaplin’s prime works, looking like something pieced together in dribs and drabs over a number of years (our favorite game is watch Chaplin’s moustache and eyebrows grow and shrink from scene to scene, and sometimes shot to shot) and continuity is generally very sloppy indeed (his street cleaner uniform goes from white pants to grey pants within the same scene). I think the gagging is somewhat weak compared to the films made around it (and I’ve always thought that THE CIRCUS is really one of the funniest pictures he made gag-wise, and have seen it work better with audiences than most of his other pictures in getting solid laughs) and I have actually seen the film fail with audiences not completely into Chaplin and willing to be charmed by anything he does.

And the famous ending, despite its ambiguity, has always come off as an admission of failure to me that Chaplin really had no idea how to wrap the thing up. Perhaps a brilliant way of getting out of that situation, but still an admission of failure nevertheless, and a corner neither Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd would have allowed themselves to be put into because they would never have proceeded on a story that they didn’t know the ending to. I definitely subscribe to Keaton’s opinion that Chaplin got “lazy” when he had his fame and his own studio, and as he made fewer and fewer films, and took longer to make them, the laziness shows through the seams more and more.

I do think Chaplin got very lucky in Harry Myers as the Millionaire. Myers performance is terrific, and he holds his own quite well with Chaplin.


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Re: Is CITY LIGHTS a great comedy?

Postby Chris Snowden » Sat Dec 04, 2010 3:24 am

Richard M Roberts wrote:Oh don’t be silly, of course CITY LIGHTS is a comedy. That said, I will have to admit that it has never been as high on my Chaplin favorite list as it seems to be with others. I think it is technically the sloppiest of Chaplin’s prime works, looking like something pieced together in dribs and drabs over a number of years (our favorite game is watch Chaplin’s moustache and eyebrows grow and shrink from scene to scene, and sometimes shot to shot) and continuity is generally very sloppy indeed (his street cleaner uniform goes from white pants to grey pants within the same scene). I think the gagging is somewhat weak compared to the films made around it (and I’ve always thought that THE CIRCUS is really one of the funniest pictures he made gag-wise, and have seen it work better with audiences than most of his other pictures in getting solid laughs) and I have actually seen the film fail with audiences not completely into Chaplin and willing to be charmed by anything he does.

And the famous ending, despite its ambiguity, has always come off as an admission of failure to me that Chaplin really had no idea how to wrap the thing up. Perhaps a brilliant way of getting out of that situation, but still an admission of failure nevertheless, and a corner neither Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd would have allowed themselves to be put into because they would never have proceeded on a story that they didn’t know the ending to. I definitely subscribe to Keaton’s opinion that Chaplin got “lazy” when he had his fame and his own studio, and as he made fewer and fewer films, and took longer to make them, the laziness shows through the seams more and more.


I understand what you're saying, but I have to disagree. Yes, City Lights has a patchwork feel to it, just as its younger brother Modern Times has. It's a collection of scenes rather than a narrative that flows purposefully from beginning to end. And I much prefer the mischievous, energetic Tramp of old to this less-resourceful, world-weary Tramp.

But though the film has its shortcomings, I think Chaplin overcame them by developing certain themes that elevate it above his usual high standard. In the urban setting of The Kid, the Tramp was perfectly at home, but in the thoroughly 20th-Century urban setting of City Lights, he's an alien visitor, a complete outcast who can no longer charm and bluff his way through life. The ending works very well for me, because while he's more than ever a bum with a murky future (a reality that the ending of Modern Times casually throws away), he's transcended everything through love and sacrifice. Unlike the perfunctory, unconvincing romances we always see Keaton and Lloyd involved in, here Chaplin paints LOVE vividly, more so than anyone had ever done in a film comedy before (or since). In spite of the impersonal big city, the Tramp prevails through his humanity, which is really the only thing he's got... and neither he nor we realize that victory until the final scene.

Modern Times is a lesser film, because there the Tramp simply endures. But in City Lights, he prevails. Here, Chaplin is doing what William Faulkner talks about in his Nobel acceptance speech. The Tramp has his adventures, he gets kicked around and he goes to jail, but there's a lot more going on than these things we see on the screen.

I have to disagree also about Chaplin's "laziness." Apart from one long vacation in 1921, he was working almost continuously until after City Lights was finally in the can. There might have been several years between releases, but he didn't have long stretches of inactivity until the 1930s. I'm glad that Keaton and Lloyd were able to knock out a film or two every year--- and they're wonderful films--- but I don't think it's a sign of laziness that Chaplin chose not to work that way.

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Re: Is CITY LIGHTS a great comedy?

Postby Richard M Roberts » Sat Dec 04, 2010 9:53 am

I understand what you're saying, but I have to disagree. Yes, City Lights has a patchwork feel to it, just as its younger brother Modern Times has. It's a collection of scenes rather than a narrative that flows purposefully from beginning to end. And I much prefer the mischievous, energetic Tramp of old to this less-resourceful, world-weary Tramp
.

Well, I disagree with much of what you are saying, excepting this opening paragraph. I think both CITY LIGHTS and MODERN TIMES are real patchwork quilts that Chaplin holds together with the force of his own comic personality, something he can do as a star comedian, but also the reason why, if one is less than charmed by Chaplin's character, his films offer little else as interest or in narrative strength.


But though the film has its shortcomings, I think Chaplin overcame them by developing certain themes that elevate it above his usual high standard. In the urban setting of The Kid, the Tramp was perfectly at home, but in the thoroughly 20th-Century urban setting of City Lights, he's an alien visitor, a complete outcast who can no longer charm and bluff his way through life. The ending works very well for me, because while he's more than ever a bum with a murky future (a reality that the ending of Modern Times casually throws away), he's transcended everything through love and sacrifice. Unlike the perfunctory, unconvincing romances we always see Keaton and Lloyd involved in, here Chaplin paints LOVE vividly, more so than anyone had ever done in a film comedy before (or since). In spite of the impersonal big city, the Tramp prevails through his humanity, which is really the only thing he's got... and neither he nor we realize that victory until the final scene.



Chaplin succeeds in showing he has triumphed in his sacrifice because the Girl can now see, but we have no idea at all whether he triumphs in LOVE because he won't take the chance and go beyond that ending scene. As Orson Welles once said, sometimes you get a happy ending because you're really just ending the story before it ends. Who knows whether after the end title the Girl just shakes his hand, says "Hey, keep in touch, come to dinner with me and my new husband sometime". or she takes him in, makes him a flower salesman, and marries him before he walks down that road again when Paulette Goddard shows up? As I said, it may be a brilliant conceit to "let the audience decide", but he's also actually admitting, "your guess is as good as mine.". If we weren't discussing a "Genius" llike Chaplin, would it be considered sloppy filmmaking?



Modern Times is a lesser film, because there the Tramp simply endures. But in City Lights, he prevails. Here, Chaplin is doing what William Faulkner talks about in his Nobel acceptance speech. The Tramp has his adventures, he gets kicked around and he goes to jail, but there's a lot more going on than these things we see on the screen.



Disagree completely that MODERN TIMES is a lesser film then CITY LIGHTS, because I think Chaplin is taking on a few more important themes, and if you think actually ending up with a partner like Paulette Goddard as "enduring" over an uncertain future with Virginia Cherrill "prevailing", you can keep your prevailing, I'd rather endure. I think the message of MODERN TIMES that people can overcome Depression, modern technology, and desperate times if they have someone to share the hard times with is far more important, certainly at the time of the films release, than whatever he is saying in CITY LIGHTS.


I have to disagree also about Chaplin's "laziness." Apart from one long vacation in 1921, he was working almost continuously until after City Lights was finally in the can. There might have been several years between releases, but he didn't have long stretches of inactivity until the 1930s. I'm glad that Keaton and Lloyd were able to knock out a film or two every year--- and they're wonderful films--- but I don't think it's a sign of laziness that Chaplin chose not to work that way.



Only in the most forgiving use of the word "continuously" as one can imagine, considering he would shut down the studio for months to "rethink" plotline issues during CITY LIGHTS, or to get divorced during THE CIRCUS, and the stretches between pictures became longer and longer as Chaplin was "creating" the story for his next picture. I agree the laziness didn't get really obvious until the 1930's, but what I have began to call David Lean and Stanley Kubrick syndrome definitely set in on Chaplin. When you can't complete more than a picture or two a decade, and the reason for it is not financial, something is definitely wrong, and the filmmaker definitely loses touch with his audience.


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Re: Is CITY LIGHTS a great comedy?

Postby Chris Snowden » Sat Dec 04, 2010 12:34 pm

Richard M Roberts wrote:Chaplin succeeds in showing he has triumphed in his sacrifice because the Girl can now see, but we have no idea at all whether he triumphs in LOVE because he won't take the chance and go beyond that ending scene. As Orson Welles once said, sometimes you get a happy ending because you're really just ending the story before it ends. Who knows whether after the end title the Girl just shakes his hand, says "Hey, keep in touch, come to dinner with me and my new husband sometime". or she takes him in, makes him a flower salesman, and marries him before he walks down that road again when Paulette Goddard shows up? As I said, it may be a brilliant conceit to "let the audience decide", but he's also actually admitting, "your guess is as good as mine.". If we weren't discussing a "Genius" llike Chaplin, would it be considered sloppy filmmaking?


In conventional comedy films (and also in westerns and elsewhere), cinematic love boils down to this: the hero performs A, B and C, and in so doing, he wins the girl. Winning the girl is the goal. And the gags (or the action) come about as he does A, B and C, and that's our movie.

What I love about City Lights is that Chaplin transcends all of that. Though he certainly longs for her, the Tramp isn't playing Win the Girl. He loves for love's sake, without the confident expectation that a big romance will follow. Love itself is what keeps him going, no matter how much the world kicks him around. It's what keeps him human in the middle of the impersonal, bustling city. At the end of the movie, his love has moved mountains, and that's why it's time for a final fade-out. Personally, I don't need to know whether he's won the girl, because winning the girl was never the point.

In this way Chaplin is operating on a whole higher level than Harold Lloyd, for whom The Girl is nearly always reduced to the status of a trophy.

Anyway, this is how I see City Lights, and why I think the film is a masterpiece, even though there are funnier films, and more smoothly-crafted films, out there.

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Re: Is CITY LIGHTS a great comedy?

Postby Richard M Roberts » Sun Dec 05, 2010 3:33 am

Chris Snowden wrote:
Richard M Roberts wrote:Chaplin succeeds in showing he has triumphed in his sacrifice because the Girl can now see, but we have no idea at all whether he triumphs in LOVE because he won't take the chance and go beyond that ending scene. As Orson Welles once said, sometimes you get a happy ending because you're really just ending the story before it ends. Who knows whether after the end title the Girl just shakes his hand, says "Hey, keep in touch, come to dinner with me and my new husband sometime". or she takes him in, makes him a flower salesman, and marries him before he walks down that road again when Paulette Goddard shows up? As I said, it may be a brilliant conceit to "let the audience decide", but he's also actually admitting, "your guess is as good as mine.". If we weren't discussing a "Genius" llike Chaplin, would it be considered sloppy filmmaking?


In conventional comedy films (and also in westerns and elsewhere), cinematic love boils down to this: the hero performs A, B and C, and in so doing, he wins the girl. Winning the girl is the goal. And the gags (or the action) come about as he does A, B and C, and that's our movie.

What I love about City Lights is that Chaplin transcends all of that. Though he certainly longs for her, the Tramp isn't playing Win the Girl. He loves for love's sake, without the confident expectation that a big romance will follow. Love itself is what keeps him going, no matter how much the world kicks him around. It's what keeps him human in the middle of the impersonal, bustling city. At the end of the movie, his love has moved mountains, and that's why it's time for a final fade-out. Personally, I don't need to know whether he's won the girl, because winning the girl was never the point.

In this way Chaplin is operating on a whole higher level than Harold Lloyd, for whom The Girl is nearly always reduced to the status of a trophy.

Anyway, this is how I see City Lights, and why I think the film is a masterpiece, even though there are funnier films, and more smoothly-crafted films, out there.



I don't buy that Chaplin isn't trying to win the Blind Girl, if that was the case, he wouldn't be pretending to be the millionaire to impress her. In fact, rather than playing on a different level than Harold Lloyd, he's playing right into Harold Lloyd territory because that is exactly the situation Lloyd frequently gets himself into trying to impress the Girl. Lloyd was always pretending to be something he was not, and he milked a lot of humor in squirming his way out of those situations.

I think what annoys me about the ending of CITY LIGHTS is that Chaplin pulls out all the emotional smoke and mirrors to hide the fact that he really can't be true to his character and win the Girl, and he wasn't boinking Virginia Cherrill off-camera so he has no personal emotional stake like he had with Georgia Hale during THE GOLD RUSH, so he's more than happy to keep Virginia on this Madonna-like pedestal (so yes, I disagree that Lloyd nearly always made his women trophies, actually Jobyna Ralston plays some of the best, helpful, and most pragmatic heroines any of the comics had), and stay away from questions the audience will ask themselves in a film geared towards a happy ending that will be illogical for a character incapable of sustaining that happy ending or a real downer ending that the audience will hate. So again, I'm not sure that Chaplin's sleight-of-hand isn't a brilliant way of getting out of it, if essentially a dishonest one, but it also annoys me that if Chaplin actually thought his stories through before going before the cameras, he wouldn''t have found himself in that hole in the first place, and having to lay off shooting for weeks at a time when he hit such plot-holes.

So to me Chaplin has always been a brilliant performer, a sloppy Director, and more shaky on the plot-construction than most of the other major comedians and their staffs. He depends on his charming the audience into overlooking his film's flaws, and using emotion to overrule logic. Again, if it was anyone else, not wanting to be labelled a "Genius", would we be so forgiving? I think not, because when Chaplin's audience quit being charmed, they turned on him really fast.

In any event, I don't hate CITY LIGHTS, and am not going to argue into the ground whether it's a masterpiece or not, but it has never been near the top of my Chaplin favorite's list.


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Re: Is CITY LIGHTS a great comedy?

Postby David B Pearson » Sun Dec 05, 2010 7:33 am

Jobyna Ralston smokes any of Chaplin's ladies.

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