Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Blind Spot #1 - "City Lights" & "Safety Last"


My first thought when I was tasked to join the Blind Spot challenge (to watch and write about classic films you hadn't yet seen on a monthly basis) was "Can I really say anything worthwhile or of interest at this point about these classic films?". My second thought was "I highly doubt it...". Granted, this is a blog and it really comes down to how I express my personal opinion about film. Since I'm coming at these classics for the first time decades after they were made, totally out of their context and with my own personal baggage, I should at least be able to get across my own perspective - but I'm not sure I can add a lot to the conversation.

To quell my concerns a bit, I decided to approach things a bit differently and expand my task to watch two Blind Spot films per post and to try to make them at least somewhat related. Perhaps those comparisons might allow for some additional discussion, since I really did want to join the list of bloggers participating. Like most film buffs, I have a rather daunting list of "must see" movies ahead of me including numerous "obvious" titles. Since my typical method for choosing the next title that goes into the DVD player or streams through NetFlix is somewhat random, I don't have a methodical way of trimming that "must see" list down. I'll typically lean towards a genre pick or maybe some Noir or perhaps a lesser known impulse choice. So now I've got something to - at least occasionally - focus my attention on the films that have been left by the wayside...


My first choice was a somewhat obvious one and probably one of the biggest gaps I had remaining. Though I've seen a bunch of Chaplin's work - The Gold Rush, Modern Times, The Circus, The Kid, Monsieur Verdoux, The Great Dictator - I've let City Lights slip by me all these years. Yes, I had not seen the film that has long been regarded by many to be one of the all-time greatest motion pictures and was famously submitted by Robert Bresson as both his first and second choices to Sight & Sound's poll of the greatest films (with The Gold Rush his third and the rest of his list blank). It was simply another one of those cases where I felt I had seen the movie already due to its place in the cultural fabric and the number of times I've seen different clips and sections of the film - particularly the end of it. Fortunately, now that I've seen it, I no longer have to fake my way through conversations with other film bloggers...

OK, that's not true. I've never actually lied about seeing it. The thing is, I probably could have since the story of the blind girl and the bum she thinks is a millionaire was already very familiar to me. Though Chaplin's story has what you might say is "a lot of heart", it's also an example of where he takes a bit of a backseat to Buster Keaton for me. I'm in the camp that prefers Keaton's stone face which never pleads for sympathy as opposed to Chaplin's rather shameless appeal to the audience. That's not necessarily a criticism of Chaplin, but simply a preference on my part. He prefers to go for pathos and the big scene (his separation from the boy in The Kid for example) whereas I'll take the subtler approach. It also felt like Chaplin couldn't wait to get to his big ending and rushed through the climactic build-up, therefore cutting the tension leading to the resolution. But really, I'm niggling at details here - the film is truly wonderful. Chaplin's little tramp has never (at least from what I've seen) been sweeter and the film is packed with gags and funny bits - far more than I expected. And it's not just the set piece gags (like the street elevator that the tramp repeatedly barely misses falling into), but it's all the little bits of business thrown in between them that make Chaplin a genius. A hand gesture here, a cane twirl there, a drunken shuffle across a dance floor...And then while you're still smiling and laughing at all that small stuff, he hits you with ceiling hung confetti getting mixed in with spaghetti. So yeah, genius is pretty apropos.


Harold Lloyd's Safety Last stands as a bit of a contrast - not because it isn't brilliant (it is), but because I came into it knowing nothing at all about its story. The stunts, however, were the known quantity this time - in particular, the iconic image of him dangling from a clock face over a busy downtown city street. Lloyd seems to have found an interesting middle ground between Keaton and Chaplin since he mugs far more to the camera than the former, but doesn't quite play the emotions across the board like the latter. He uses a strong story line to build towards (with smaller comedic moments along the way) the big set piece at the end. And what a marvelous piece it is too...If the plot of a young man hiding his real job as a department store clerk from his girlfriend (in order to make her think he has a managerial position at the store) doesn't sound overly original even for 1923, the film keeps it moving forward without lagging or overdoing any particular gag. And then Lloyd gets to his own climactic scene which, in further contrast to Chaplin, he stretches for a full 15-20 minutes as he climbs the outside of the store's building as a publicity stunt and uses that single concept as a creative wellspring for all manner of athletic comedy. His smaller moments of subtle humor feel a notch below his contemporaries, but when it comes to a major crafted piece of funny business, Harold Lloyd ranks right up there with them. The following year's Girl Shy has its own long climax that is also a wonder to behold as Lloyd races the clock to prevent a marriage and touches just about every possible mode of transportation.


As with City Lights and Chaplin, I already had a few of Lloyd's other films under my belt before tackling his most famous. It turns out there's a reason why both these films are as exhalted as they are in their respective director's careers - for me, each one comes across as the most fully formed and complete pieces of art they ever made. In the end, if I lean a bit more towards Modern Times as my favourite Chaplin, it doesn't mean that I don't see Bresson's point of view.

7 comments:

Chip Lary said...

Great reviews for both films. I would also take Modern Times over City Lights, but I like them both.

I absolutely love Safety Last. I've shown it to others and I had to remind them that this was made in the 1920s. There are no digitally removed safety harnesses, nor does Lloyd have a stunt double (except for a long shot.) The traffic we see in the background is real traffic, not cgi. And Lloyd did all his stunts on the side of real buildings, several stories in the air, while missing two fingers on one of his hands, in shoes ill suited for climbing, with nothing more to save him if he fell than a mattress on a platform (which promptly ejected a dummy off into freefall to the street below the one time they tested it). It truly was "safety last".

You mentioned you had seem some other Lloyd. If The Freshman wasn't one of them, I highly recommend it. Speedy is pretty good, too.

Bob Turnbull said...

Thanks for the great comment Chip!

I knew Lloyd's antics on the building were essentially of the "what you see is what you get" variety (with very little safety), but I love your additional info about his missing fingers, his shoes and the rather useless mattress...

Yep, I've seen The Freshman as well as Girl Shy and The Kid Brother and I enjoyed them all. Girl Shy and Safety Last are my favourites, but I need to add a few more titles to the list...

Dave Enkosky said...

Loved the reviews. I would definitely mark City Lights as my favorite Chaplin film, if only because it moves me so much.

And yeah, Safety Last is a blast.

Jake said...

Even stranger, Bob, Lloyd lost those fingers because a prop bomb went off in his hand. Safety Last is one of the most dazzling of silent films, partially because of the rather working-class simplicity of its most epic stunt. It is in this respect that I think he most resembles Chaplin beyond mere mugging: Keaton's stunts are more sophisticated and delicately timed, but Lloyd shares Chaplin's ability to make even the most gargantuan setpiece seem banal until he performs extraordinary acts with it. In fact, I would say that Lloyd might even surpass Chaplin there, since the Tramp was such a directorial perfectionist.

As for City Lights, well, apart from Sunrise is may well be my favorite silent. I too prefer Keaton's stoicism, but I would argue Chaplin is actually the subtler craftsman. The best Keatons are showcases of skill, not merely the physical comedy or staging but in the cutting of the films (I'd argue that Keaton's editing techniques are no less innovative and influential than D.W. Griffith's). But Chaplin, like I mentioned earlier, was no less a perfectionist even though he made his stunts more natural. City Lights flows through a pretty dense story for a silent, but he roots it in basic emotions that he makes simple enough for a mass audience but complex enough to endure. City Lights manages not only to be Chaplin's funniest feature—only The Gold Rush comes close, or maybe Monsieur Verdoux if you're open to pitch-black satire—but his most profoundly moving. I don't find it rushed much at all, though I certainly think its final act has a density to it that works better with repeat viewings.

SJHoneywell said...

City Lights is on my own Blind Spot list, so I'll be getting to it in a few months...

As for Safety Last, there are some wonderful gags through the film, but it's really all about the building climb. That sequence more than perhaps any other can sell someone one watching silent comedy.

Bob Turnbull said...

Thanks Dave...Yeah, I can't say I wasn't moved by "City Lights", but somewhat less so than I expected - probably because I knew the story already and also because I found they jumped quickly to her being cured. But as I said - nitpick city.

Thanks Jake - fantastic comments. From my knowledge of the three of them, I would pretty much agree with all your points regarding their styles and how Lloyd crafts his big stunts. No doubt Keaton's are far more planned and there are moments when you almost think Lloyd said "start filming and let's see what I can think of doing...". When it comes down to it, I'm finding the three of them were simply brilliant in their own ways and I'm eager to dig deeper into their work (including short films, etc.). Keaton will likely always be tops in my book though.

SJ, looking forward to seeing your own comments on "City Lights". I'm tempted to watch it all over again...I've also been considering showing my son "Safety Last" as he had enjoyed the Keaton I've put on (started with "Cops" and have thrown in various bits - including the dodging boulder scene in "Seven Chances" so that he could see where Lucas stole, uh, borrowed the idea for that Jar Jar scene in "Attack Of The Clones").

Chip Lary said...

I wanted to let you know that as one of my favorite blogs, I have nominated you for the Liebster Blog Award. Check out my post for details: http://tipsfromchip.blogspot.com/2012/02/i-received-liebster-blog-award.html

Feel free to accept or decline. No pressure.