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City Lights (1931)

Whether you thought Chaplin was a brilliant and dedicated artist or a complete sonuvabitch as a director seems to have depended heavily on whether you understood the perfectionism and worked with him, or didn't get it and just scrambled around working under him -- and on how personally you took an insistence on 342 takes of a single goddamn scene. He's surprisingly diplomatic about it in his book, but apparently he hired Virginia Cherrill (the flower girl) because she had a knack for acting blind, and then discovered too late that she just could not do anything else at fucking all. City Lights is one of the few pictures for which behind-the-scenes footage exists, DVD extras still being about six decades away. He looks like he's making a sincere effort not to actually lose his temper with the girl, which is something, at least. He was evidently not prone to directing the irascibility to anyone in particular, other than himself; the early crews at Keystone found him easy enough to get along with that they were all on a first-name basis with him, despite him being notoriously pernickety.

The set footage also answers the question of how on earth Chaplin shuffled around in those shoes when out-of-character, which is surprisingly well. Being confronted with a home movie camera also makes him relax a hair and start mugging; you can see in the direct and un-theatrical lighting that his eyes are actually quite a bright color -- I would guess blue. He's forty-ish here and has started to go gray with a great dramatic shock of white at the front, which he doesn't much bother to hide.

And a note on wardrobe: The tramp's costuming has not changed since his inception, which means that the joke has. In the first shorts, filmed in the nineteen-teens, it's obvious that the tramp is dressing in imitation of a social standing that he aspires to, but never quite reaches. By the early 1930s, cutaway coats like that were well out of fashion, and the only other characters who appear in them are a butler and a singer, both of whom wear them as professional livery. (The black bowler and pongee cane were noticeably less common, but not quite gone.) Part of the romanticism of the character becomes his dogged attempts to hang onto his integrity and dignity, despite the fact that the only dignity he can afford is increasingly out of date. His face too has retained the unsubtlety of early "flickies", even as the makeup on the other characters evolves with the cinematic style of the time.

I've heard other people who do profiling for fun or profit say that they have trouble with movies and TV sometimes, because there are so many, many tells that nothing going on is genuine. I've never had an issue. Television and cinematic shorthand are so different from real life that they're essentially another dialect, as different from reality as Shakespeare is from kabuki. It only drives me bats if an actor is so bad they can't pick a set of conventions and "speak" it consistently. I've developed a particular fondness for City Lights; I find a great deal of charm in the way Chaplin code-switches so easily between panto slapstick and cinematic-sincerity. There's something very heartfelt and sweet in watching him slide out of the frantic comedy flailing for just an instant to drop a quiet, unpretentious kiss on the back of the flower girl's hand, then have to go back to fleeing for his life a moment later.

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