Classics From Criterion: CITY LIGHTS (1931)

Growing up the majority of my silent film comedies came in the form of Buster Keaton.  I saw a few Charlie Chaplin films, but Buster Keaton was my main man.  This is not to say that I prefer one to the other, not forgetting Harold Lloyd, rather that I had more experience with Buster Keaton’s films than with Charlie Chaplin’s.  Starting off my month of silent films I decided to take a suggestion from Fritzi of Movies Silently and watch CITY LIGHTS.

The Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) is trying to take a nap in the solid stone arms of a statue.  Unfortunately for him this statue is part of a dedication ceremony and is unveiled, complete with sleeping tramp, before an entire crowd of people, dignitaries,  and policemen.  Naturally no one is particularly pleased to see him there and the Tramp takes his leave as quickly as possible but not before creating quite a stir and putting himself on the police’s radar.  Walking down the street the Tramp meets some of the lovely young fellows of the newsboy ilk and, in an attempt to avoid their taunts, crosses the street and nearly runs into a waiting policeman.  Luckily for him several fancy cars have just pulled up and the Tramp slips into the backseat through one door and out onto the sidewalk through the other.

Exiting onto the sidewalk the Tramp hears a young woman peddling flowers to the passing gentry.  The rich and fashionable walk on by without a second glance but the Tramp turns to see the lovely young woman (Virginia Cherrill).  She offers him a flower and while he is turning her down, drops it on the sidewalk.  As she reaches down to find it he realizes that she is blind and hurries to help her.  He buys a flower and at that moment a man crosses in front of him and climbs into the town car the Tramp just exited from.  The girl looks up believing that the Tramp is actually a rich gentleman who has just driven away without his change.

The Tramp is in love but knows that he can’t do anything to help the lovely flower girl as he has no money to his name, let alone a home or a job.  But she sees him as something wonderful and he would do anything to keep that vision alive.  Walking by the canals late that night he comes across a drunken man trying to kill himself.  The Tramp manages to stop the man and convince him that life is worth living.  The drunken man is actually a drunken millionaire (Harry Myers) and he proclaims that the Tramp is his new best friend.  He takes him back to his mansion and gives him plenty of drinks and food.  A small problem arises in the morning when it becomes clear that when sober the millionaire has no clue who the Tramp is, and he certainly is NOT his dearest friend.  This is doubly bad for the Tramp because not only does his lose his rich pal but he also loses the possibility of helping his dearest love regain her sight.  Clearly he will have to take matters into his own hands.

CITY LIGHTS is thought by many to be the finest film that Charlie Chaplin ever made.  I can certainly see why this would be.  Obviously this film was a labor of love, especially since it took Charlie Chaplin almost four years to bring it to theaters.  Original filming began in late 1928 but the film was shelved as the talkies began to take over the film industry.  The subsequent depression did nothing to help matters either, as CITY LIGHTS would become one of the most expensive films made by Chaplin at the time.  It wouldn’t be until 1930 that Chaplin would begin filming again.  CITY LIGHTS would also mark the first film that Charlie Chaplin composed a musical score for.

In spite of the growing popularity of sound, and the increasing pressure to turn CITY LIGHTS into a talkie, Charlie Chaplin held firm in his desire to release the film as a silent.  Why would he do this?  Why run the risk of financial loss by releasing a silent film to an audience that was becoming more and more enamored of sound?  I think it was because he was trying to make a film that showed the world the beauty, emotional impact, and intelligence that could be found in silent films.  Charlie Chaplin was known as a perfectionist, holding control over every element of filming, but there is something about CITY LIGHTS that makes it feel as if more was at stake for Chaplin than with some of his other films.

There are some theories that CITY LIGHTS is semi-autobiographical with the flower girl representing Chaplin’s mother and the millionaire his father.  While this could be true, I tend to think that the millionaire represents the Hollywood industry attacking the art of silent film and the flower girl is the movie-going public.  The millionaire loves the Tramp only when drunk and shows his affection with gifts, money, and parties.  But in the light of day all gifts are rescinded and all bonds are severed.  While the powers of Hollywood might have kinds words to say about Chaplin and his films at parties or in private, when it comes time to stand up in the board room and make a case for silent film all allies fade away.  The flower girl is innocent and kind, and believes the Tramp to be someone great and powerful even though she has never seen him.  The Tramp puts so much effort and love into trying to help her regain her sight.  It almost seems as if Chaplin was begging the people who had spent so much time and money coming to see his films, the people who made him into and believed him to be a great star, to take one more look at silent films, to show them that these films which they had once loved could be something great and wonderful even in a world of sound.  With this idea in mind the final scene becomes so much more powerful.

CITY LIGHTS could not stop the onslaught of sound, nor could it revive the world of silent films.  But what it could do, and what it did, was create a film that showed everything that was best about the art form.  And while Charlie Chaplin may not have saved silent films per se, I think he did save them in a way he never expected.  CITY LIGHTS is a film that helps people fall in love, or at least in like, with silent films.  It has romance without being sappy, humor without being over the top, and emotion without being melodramatic.  For every person who watches this film and wants to see more, in them Chaplin has saved silent film because no art form can truly die when there are people who are watching it, talking about it, thinking about it, and loving it.

Shorts! Blogathon: TROUBLES OF A GRASS WIDOWER (1912)

This post is part of the Shorts! Blogathon presented by Fritzi over at Movies Silently!  Check out the other entries here!

Grass Widower

Definition of GRASS WIDOWER

: a man divorced or separated from his wife
: a man whose wife is temporarily away from him

What is a fellow to do when his wife becomes so fed up with him, she goes back home to Mother?  In the case of Max Linder the answer is, attempt to carry on with hilariously disastrous consequences.

The plot is quite simple.  A husband (Max Linder) is making his wife (Jane Renouardt) crazy and ignoring her during dinner.  Finally fed up with this behavior the un-appreciated wife decides to head back home to her mother.  Her husband is initially delighted at having the whole house to himself and sets about doing daily activities.  However, he soon finds that things are not so delightful and the house descends into chaos.  Will his wife ever return?

So, let’s get a little background shall we?  Gabriel-Maximillien Leuvielle, better known as Max Linder, was a French actor, director, comedian, producer, and screen writer of the silent film era.  His parents were vineyard owners and expected him to continue in the family business but Max was enthralled by the traveling circuses and theaters that came to town.  In 1899 he enrolled in the Bordeaux Conservatorie and from 1901-1904 was a contract player in the Bordeaux Théâtre des Arts, adopting the stage name of Max Linder.  Then in 1905, Max got his big break.  “Do you want to do some cinema?” asked one of Linder’s colleagues at the theatre. “What’s that?” said Max.   “A kind of theatre, except that you act in front of a machine. You joke around. You’ll get 20 francs.” answered his friend.  Max agreed and was filmed skating, and falling, over and over on a frozen lake for a short called Les Débuts d’un Patineur.  This was to become his first success and showed Max a world that he had never known before, cinema shorts.  Max was eager to continue and soon began producing his own short films.

Max’s onscreen personality was a dapper dandy, a suave gentleman full of charm and manners, but one who was liable to get into various comedic disasters usually due to his womanizing behaviors.  His characters were usually dressed with a top hat and a distinctive mustache, and Max often adapted and improvised his performances to fit the desires of the movie going public.  Max Linder soon became the very first internationally recognizable film star.  Signed on by Pathe, in 1910 Max Linder and his films were so popular that he was filming a comedy a week at the studio and was earning 1 million francs a year.  But soon Max had to take a break from his demanding schedule.  A childhood bout of cholera and a roller skating accident that occurred during his film career had damaged his health and continued to trouble him years later.  But this absence was short lived and by 1911 Max Linder was back and making shorts.

In 1914 World War I broke out and Max enlisted in the French Army.  He served for two months as a dispatch driver before being dismissed due to his poor health.  After being dismissed, Max continued to do his part to support the war effort by entertaining the troops.  In 1916 Max was offered a contract to make films in America which he accepted.  While in America Max Linder met and befriended Charlie Chaplin, a relationship that would go on to affect Chaplin’s entire career.  For example, Max Linder’s influence can directly be seen in Chaplin’s Little Tramp character.  American audiences largely ignored Linder’s films and they made little to no money, leading to Max’s contract in America being cancelled.  Max returned to war-torn France where, suffering from depression, he made no films until after the war’s end.  In 1919 Max made a new film that became a moderate success in Europe but which remained unseen in America.  However, bolstered by the modest success of his newest film, Max decided to take on Hollywood once again.  Creating his own production company, Max Linder Productions, Max made two feature films starring his dapper Max character neither of which made an impact on the American audience.  He then took on the role of “Dart-In-Again” in The Three Must-Get-Theres, a spoof of The Three Musketeers starring Douglas Fairbanks.  Although both Fairbanks and Chaplin praised the film, it did not make money at the box office and Max returned to France.

Now severely depressed, Max Linder made two final films in France but he no longer felt funny. As he is quoted saying to director Robert Florey, “The public is mildly amused by my situations…but where were the explosions of laughter that we hear when Charlie’s on the screen?”  He married eighteen year old Hélène “Jean” Peters in 1923 and in 1924 the couple welcomed a daughter named Maud.  But even the joys of marriage and fatherhood could not raise Max’s spirits.  Both husband and wife suffered emotional problems which became evident in early 1924 when they attempted to commit suicide together at a hotel in Vienna, Austria before they were found a revived.  The doctor covered up the situation, calling it an accidental barbituate overdose.  On October 31, 1925 Max Linder and his wife attended a performance of Quo Vadis.  In the play the main characters bleed themselves to death and later that night the Linder’s died the same way.  Charlie Chaplin is said to have closed his studios for a day out of respect for the death of a man who is barely known by American audiences today, but one who he thought of as his teacher.

And what happened to baby Maud? She was raised by her grandparents who waited until she was about twenty years old before they told her what really happened to her parents.  After seeing one of her father’s films, Maud realized what a star her father had been and resolved to make his films accessible to the public once again.  In 1963 she made a film compilation of her father’s last three films from Hollywood entitled Laugh With Max Linder which premiered at the Venice Film Festival and won the Étoile de Cristal.  In 1983 she made a documentary called The Man in the Silk Hat which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival.  In the 1950s and 1960s she worked as a journalist, and as an assistant director for Jean-Paul Le Chanois.  She published a book in France entitled Max Linder Was My Father in 1992, and in 2008 she was awarded the Prix Henri Langlois for her work in promoting her father’s legacy.  And the most amazing part?  She is currently still alive and residing in France.

The life of Max Linder is undoubtably tragic, as so many great comedic talents’ seem to be.  He was never understood or accepted by the American audience even though he gave them one of their greatest and most popular film stars, Charlie Chaplin.  Even today he is relegated as a footnote in the history of silent comedy and is not well known, which is a shame because he is just as funny and clever as Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Jacques Tati, and yes Charlie Chaplin.   There are even aspects that made me think of Mr. Bean and I wonder if Rowan Atkinson has ever watched Max Linder.  His humor is not over the top antics or crazy slap stick, it is more realistic and more grounded in every day.  The situations that Max gets into are funny of course and a little crazy but they are never too bizarre to make sense.  Max Linder is the reason that we have Charlie Chaplin and a major influence in the early days of silent comedy.  He was the first international film star and he has, unfortunately, been largely forgotten.  So, let’s take this moment to doff our top hats to the memory of Max Linder and watch him doing what he did best.