Don’t get me wrong: I love Buster Keaton. He was a brilliant comedian with incredible athleticism and his silent films are a treasure, especially The General and Steamboat Bill Jr.
And I find Harold Lloyd just adorable - cute, sweet, and athletic and he still keeps audiences laughing with films such as Safety Last! and Speedy. But it’s Charlie Chaplin who has held my heart for over three decades.
The American Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre is featuring some of his best comedies in its “Chaplin Comes Alive” series which begins this Friday, February 3rd, with 1936’s Modern Times and 1931’s City Lights, followed by 1921’s The Kid and 1925’s The Gold Rush and several of the newly-restored silent shorts he made for Essanay in 1915 including “The Bank” and “The Tramp.”
It took me a while to join Team Charlie. When I was little, I knew he lived in Switzerland, and my mother kept calling him a communist. I finally saw one of his films on PBS, 1914’s Tillie’s Punctured Romance, when I was in high school; it was a horribly chopped-up print that didn’t even have a score.
Of course, I remember him returning to America in 1972 after 20 years to receive his honorary Oscar. It truly was a memorable evening in Academy Awards history. But it really wasn’t until I was getting my Masters in film history and criticism at USC four decades ago that I was really introduced to Chaplin, when one of my classes screened The Kid.
The reaction from the audience was amazing. It sort of reminded me of the scene in Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, when the prisoners laugh their troubles away at a Mickey Mouse cartoon.
But I fell in love with Chaplin on a rainy Sunday in October, 1984, when I went to a double bill at the Nuart Theatre of The Gold Rush and City Lights. The place was packed and the audience of all ages howled at The Gold Rush, especially at such iconic scenes as the Tramp trying to make a meal out of his shoes.
Then came City Lights.
It is one of Chaplin’s funniest films and the first to have a music and sound effects soundtrack. The Tramp falls in love with a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) and goes through many hysterical means to raise money for her eye surgery.
But it’s the ending you’ll always remember: the young woman, who has had her eyesight restored, realizes her “wealthy” benefactor is actually this poor homeless man wearing a shabby, ill-fitting suit.
I remembered that day I couldn’t stop crying and ran to the bathroom at the theater and ensconced myself in a stall as I wept. Even writing about it all these years later, I am getting misty.
City Lights became - and remains - my favorite film.
It’s also the favorite film of Norman Lloyd, Chaplin’s good friend who starred with him in 1952’s Limelight.
And on a 1974 Tonight Show with Johnny Carson interview with Tony Randall, the Odd Couple star said that he had taken his wife over 30 times to see the film and didn’t understand why she was bored by it. If it was up to him, he’s he see the movie every day. “It’s the only film I really liked.”
Over the years, I’ve talked to several of Chaplin’s children including Josephine, Geraldine, Michael, and the late Sydney; film historians/preservationists Kevin Brownlow and Serge Bromberg; and conductor Timothy Brock, who has restored Chaplin’s scores.
In a 2003 interview I did with Brock when he was conducting the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s 14th Annual Silent Film Gala’s presentation of City Lights, I asked him how he could keep it together conducting the orchestra in those final scenes.
Brock admitted he can’t look at the screen “because I just start bawling. It’s not the music by itself, and it’s not the film by itself. It’s a combination of the two. I watch the players as I normally do throughout the whole film, but the last part of the film has to be done from memory for me because it’s just too heartbreaking. I am mostly looking at the musicians because I have the score memorized. I listen behind me as well because usually there is a lot of sniffling.”
Josephine Chaplin acknowledged “I cry every time.” And just like Randall, Sydney Chaplin had seen the film over 30 times. “It is my favorite picture,” he told me in 2003. “It’s so touching and it’s absolutely marvelous. The end of the picture is a massacre!’
Dustin Hoffman, who was the gala’s honorary chairman, admitted to me that he even cries during Chaplin and Cherrill’s first encounter.
“The ending is one of the great emotional moments in the history of movies. His invention and his humanity co-exist in a way more than any other film he’s made or anyone else has made. I think this character represents something in all of us to an emotional degree that I don’t know if any other screen character does. He's a perpetual outsider…. We are all perpetual outsiders somewhere deep in us; otherwise we wouldn’t search for community as hard as we do.”
And Sydney Chaplin recalled his dad would screen his films for his children at their home in Switzerland. “Of course, I adored it when he showed City Lights. He deals with emotions and people’s feelings, which are never dated.”
I couldn’t say it better myself.
Veteran journalist Susan King wrote about entertainment at the Los Angeles Times for 26 years (January 1990 - March 2016), specializing in classic Hollywood stories. She also wrote about independent, foreign and studio movies and occasionally TV and theater stories. She received her master's degree in film history and criticism at USC. After working 10 years at the L.A. Herald Examiner, she moved to the Los Angeles Times.