Hard as it is to believe, we are nearing the hundredth anniversary of the start of one of the most important movie careers ever. A while ago, in this book, I came across some transcripts of inter-office memos by Universal Pictures, circa 1912 - the memos have people in high positions discussing the worth of a young comic who had applied for a job at the studio, and the first one reads:
“Interesting eccentric comedian. Better in sketches with dialogue than sight gags. However, not outstanding enough to warrant either testing or sending to coast.”
And later, when the test did happen after all (because there was an unanticipated vacancy):
“Many objections have been raised to the use of the derby hat...also, the moustache must go. And do not allow him to walk comically. This may look all right on English music hall stages but for mass audience we must try to avoid offending people who are bow-legged, or crippled.”
Happily, Charles Spencer Chaplin won the battle to keep his hat, his moustache and his walk, and here we are a century later, still marvelling at the effect he had on a new art form that was searching for direction – most popularly as a performer, but just as vitally as a filmmaker and all-round creative genius, one of the first true auteurs.
Eagle Home Entertainment has recently made available a series of Chaplin’s feature-length movies in good, restored prints, and it’s been a good excuse to catch up on films that I took for granted when I was a child. There are many gems here, including The Gold Rush, Modern Times and, from later years, Limelight and Monsieur Verdoux, but if I had to pick a favourite it would probably be the lovely City Lights, which Chaplin determinedly made as a silent film at a time when talkies were all the rage. (A sly opening scene has pompous officials speaking gibberish while inaugurating a statue – probably a reflection of what Chaplin himself felt about talking movies!) This story about a tramp who falls in love with a blind flower girl while also managing an oddly intimate, on-again-off-again friendship with a drunk millionaire, combines all the best qualities of his work: imaginative physical comedy (notably the superb boxing-ring scene), unforgettable little gags (the "lucky" rabbit foot, the spaghetti and the streamers), gentle romance and pathos.
To watch the classic Chaplin films is to marvel at the influence they have had on cinema over the decades – and to discover, almost from one scene to the next, how strongly his work has seeped into popular culture across the world. (It's a bit like realising that a favourite novel - say, Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury or Richard Matheson’s What Dreams May Come - gets its title from a phrase made popular by a Shakespeare play.) Everyone knows about the effect he had on Raj Kapoor’s work, for example, but watching the beautiful last scene of City Lights where the tramp meets the girl, her sight now restored, I was reminded of the final moments of the Kamal Haasan-Sridevi tearjerker Sadma, where a man finds that the girl he had cared for through a mental ailment no longer recognises him now that she has regained her memory.
The City Lights sequence is (somewhat uncharacteristically for Chaplin) very understated, while the Sadma one belongs to a tradition of high melodrama, but the emotional link is so strong that it almost doesn't matter. To my eyes at least, Haasan almost comes to resemble Chaplin in that scene; even his moustache seems to droop in a similar way. But then, optical illusions of this sort are part of the Little Tramp’s legacy - you find traces of him in the unlikeliest places.
It also barely matters that the first film ends on a seemingly hopeful note whereas the latter's ending is sad and pessimistic; in the Chaplin universe, the possibility of melancholy exists in the most joyful situations, and vice versa. In any case, the viewer's knowledge of the Tramp's screen persona - the fact that he's a drifter perpetually bow-legging it from one situation to the next - makes it difficult to imagine a genuine romantic union between him and the flower girl, and this could be one reason why the last scene of City Lights is so movingly ambiguous. As Andrew Sarris put it, the final close-up is "the definitive image of a man who feels tragically unworthy of his beloved". It's a classic Chaplin theme.
[From my film column in Business Standard Weekend]