The Heart of Slapstick
This is the second post in my Blindspot review series. I will be publishing one like it each month for the rest of 2015.
Believe it or not, City Lights is my first Charlie Chaplin movie. Finally, the Tramp has frolicked his way into my “Have Watched” list with his feet angled out in the great Chaplin walk, and his entrance is a joy. Playing the iconic Tramp, the legendary actor won me over almost immediately. In the opening scene, the Tramp tries in vain to dismount a monument after being caught sleeping on it. He proceeds to get his pants impaled on a stone sword and execute one faux pas after another, periodically tipping his hat in apology at both the incredulous onlookers and the statues that compose the monument. All the while I kept thinking, when has clumsiness ever looked this graceful?
City Lights is a splendid contradiction of elegant inelegance, of slapstick so well-timed and well-choreographed that order is brought to the chaos without sacrificing the spirit of anarchy. Notable is a scene at a restaurant where chairs are accidentally pulled out from patrons by other patrons; where three, four fights nearly break out; and where the Tramp transitions from eating spaghetti to munching a strand of overhanging confetti near his mouth. Another is the boxing scene I mentioned earlier, which finds humor through repetition and a predictable rhythm in the slapstick. Step-step-step-punch-step-step-step-punch, the bell rings once, twice, now back to measure one. Indeed, although witnessing the Tramp’s myriad misadventures often feels like watching dance, they also evoke the experience of hearing a symphony, so perfectly and grandly orchestrated is the visual comedy. Whenever a particular scene finished, I felt like giving a standing ovation.
But I stayed seated because the film had more to offer, namely a critical yet compassionate view of the upper class at the onset of the Great Depression, as well as a lively romance to overcome the malaise of the times. Love is in the air, but so is poverty – these two circumstances cause the tramp to court a blind woman selling flowers by the roadside. He takes it upon himself to help her financially, a difficult task given the emptiness of his own pockets, but then he makes a new, wealthy friend after thwarting the man’s attempted suicide. The intervention itself is finny, with lots of slipping and people getting wet, but it also introduces the movie’s melancholic streak. From a socioeconomic standpoint, this depressed character has it all, and yet love has eluded him, so he tries in vain to drink and party his misery away. As was conventional with silent cinema, these scenes of excess visually appear to move at hyperspeed, but the fast-forward aesthetic also contributes, perhaps inadvertently, to an air of parody marked with sadness. On the one hand, we sense the film’s disdain for the aristocratic decadence that feels especially insensitive given the extant squalor outside the gates of the elite; the Tramp’s fish-out-of-water attitude toward upper-class etiquette only makes the high life look more ridiculous to us. On the other hand, we recognize the emptiness behind the hedonism, made all the clearer when juxtaposed with the tramp, a little man whose nonexistent material wealth is more than compensated for by love’s abundant promises.
This love is lovely foremost because it involves a uniting of misfits – the petite, rumpled Tramp with the blind woman whom nobody seems to notice. I rooted for their romance the entire time, even if the Tramp’s seeming gentlemanliness felt somewhat diminished by the fact that his courtship involved passing his friend’s wealth off as his own. He wins our sympathies because he’s sweet, considerate, and big-hearted, characteristics the woman recognizes – when her grandmother comments on the apparent wealth of the woman’s suitor, she responds with, “He’s more than that.” And he is, but it took a blind person to see it. Physically blind to the superficial characteristics through which society defines beauty, the woman is unfettered by this limited perspective. Her probing “gaze” is on the character of the Tramp, but the film also seems to use it to self-consciously unveil new dimensions to Chaplin’s acting. Isn’t it strange that, in a movie by a director who made his career in silent cinema, the love interest is someone who is literally blind to the gestures and gesticulations that are so central to pre-sound film? In other words, what Chaplin is beloved for is meaningless to his beloved in this movie – it is ultimately not just the fancy choreography but the Tramp’s humanity that shines through.