BFI Classics: City Lights

 Author: Charles Marland

Inevitably there are many studies on Chaplin and certainly Charles Maland’s addition to the BFI Classics is a good read. He mixes up the chapters well between brief biography (many other books have course gone into much greater biographical detail and are contradictory), but gives out just enough to lay the groundwork in putting City Lights into context. He also dedicates chapters detailing the long and expensive production and shooting schedule (683 days from beginning to end including idle days) while going through personal crises after personal crises: a much publicised divorce, tax problems and the death of his mother.

Maland also goes into detail about the films release and the positive critical reception it received – instantly being given classic status. But this was not as easy as it may seem – after all this is a Chaplin film. 1927 ended with the release of The Jazz Singer which saw the talkie revolution arrive and between 1928-1929 most films and theatres were converting to sound (or ‘sqwarkies’ as some commentators called them); Chaplin resisted as he was shy about his English accent and how this might damage is career and remained resistant until 1940 when he made The Great Dictator. For him converting to sound would kill the art of comedy and pantomime. Look at the first sound films of Buster Keaton and you will see he was right. However, calling this a silent film is not entirely accurate as he used sound to comic effect in the scene where he mocks the mayor’s speech as he about to unveil a new statue (with a sleeping tramp on it) and delivers his speech as though talking through a kazoo. Chaplin also recorded his own musical score for the film.

Within the framework of the book, he analyses the socio-political background following the 1929 stock market crash, the shooting schedule and goes into detail about the films most iconic scene, the closing one in which the blind girl (Virginia Cherrill) who’s sight has now been restored thanks what she believed was a wealthy benefactor, but is in fact a tramp (this image is illustrated on the front cover of the book). Maland gives over two short chapters to this scene alone in which the camera fades out on Chaplin’s shy and happy face at her eventual acceptance of him. However, the book fails to go into any depth about the fractious relationship that Chaplin had with Merrill (at one point during the production he sacked her). Cherrill was after all only a novice and was appearing in her feature debut and would later go on to marrying Cary Grant.

Chris Hick

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