Tuesday, April 6, 2010
Chaplin was indeed in a defiant move when he directed and starred in City Lights, a bittersweet comedy that he also scripted. Balking at a studio-system looking to bury the once strong silent cinema forever, the always independent minded Chaplin worked his (and his crew's) ass off to make City Lights one of the movements crowing achievements. Not content with turning out just another cheap comedy, Chaplin reportedly demanded retake after retake from his cast (leading lady Virginia Cherrill was finally fired when she couldn’t handle the pressure, and Georgia Hale was brought in to take her place) and kep’t a rigorous schedule throughout the shooting comparable to later cinematic perfectionists ranging from Stanley Kubrick (who would call City Lights one of cinema’s greatest films) to David Fincher. Chaplin was just as hard on himself and creating City Lights left him physically, spiritually and mentally beat for a time. It would take the great man over five years before he could complete his next film, the extraordinary Modern Times in 1936.
Chaplin’s daringness paid off when City Lights became one of the biggest hits of his career, proving that audiences weren’t as ready to give up on the silents as quickly as the business minded studio heads had figured. Chaplin’s film has aged incredibly well and it is still an extremely funny and quite moving experience, and it is among my personal favorite works from the man.
City Lights would have a lasting influence on film, art and music and images from it have become a part of our popular culture. One of my favorite nods to the film occurred in 1979 when Lou Reed closed side one of one of his career best albums, The Bells, with a song about Chaplin and his audacious film entitled, appropriately, “City Lights”. Lou’s tale of Chaplin’s trouble with the United States government, and his ability to flick “away the rain” with his cane, is one of his greatest and most undervalued tracks. Like the film and life that inspired it, Lou Reed’s “City Lights” is both tragic and triumphant and, finally, a very fitting epitaph for a really special artist.
City Lights was available as a splendid two-disc special edition DVD but that has, unbelievably, slipped out of print and copies now fetch extremely high prices. Hopefully a new version is on the way, as a film this important shouldn’t be hard for collectors and film lovers to come by.