My first thought when I was tasked to join the Blind Spot challenge (to watch and write about classic films you hadn’t yet seen on a monthly basis – organized by bloggers James McNally and Ryan McNeil) was “Can I really say anything worthwhile or of interest at this point about these classic films?”. My second thought was “I highly doubt it…”. Granted, it really comes down to how I express my personal opinion about film, so since I’m coming at these classics for the first time decades after they were made, totally out of their context and with my own personal baggage, I should at least be able to get across my own perspective – but I’m not sure I can add a lot to the conversation.
To quell my concerns a bit, I decided to approach things a bit differently and expand my task to watch two Blind Spot films per post and to try to make them at least somewhat related. Perhaps those comparisons might allow for some additional discussion, since I really did want to join the list of bloggers participating. Like most film buffs, I have a rather daunting list of “must see” movies ahead of me including numerous “obvious” titles. Since my typical method for choosing the next title that goes into the DVD player or streams through NetFlix is somewhat random, I don’t have a methodical way of trimming that “must see” list down. I’ll typically lean towards a genre pick or maybe some Noir or perhaps a lesser known impulse choice. So now I’ve got something to – at least occasionally – focus my attention on the films that have been left by the wayside…Most of the Blind Spot posts that will be popping up here over the next few weeks have come from earlier this year (from my own personal blog) where I’ve been publishing them on the last Tuesday of each month.
My first choice was a somewhat obvious one and probably one of the biggest gaps I had remaining. Though I’ve seen a bunch of Chaplin’s work – The Gold Rush, Modern Times, The Circus, The Kid, Monsieur Verdoux, The Great Dictator – I’ve let City Lights slip by me all these years. Yes, I had not seen the film that has long been regarded by many to be one of the all-time greatest motion pictures and was famously submitted by Robert Bresson as both his first and second choices to Sight & Sound’s poll of the greatest films (with The Gold Rush his third and the rest of his list blank). It was simply another one of those cases where I felt I had seen the movie already due to its place in the cultural fabric and the number of times I’ve seen different clips and sections of the film – particularly the end of it. Fortunately, now that I’ve seen it, I no longer have to fake my way through conversations with other film bloggers…
OK, that’s not true. I’ve never actually lied about seeing it. The thing is, I probably could have since the story of the blind girl and the bum she thinks is a millionaire was already very familiar to me. Though Chaplin’s story has what you might say is “a lot of heart”, it’s also an example of where he takes a bit of a backseat to Buster Keaton for me. I’m in the camp that prefers Keaton’s stone face which never pleads for sympathy as opposed to Chaplin’s rather shameless appeal to the audience. That’s not necessarily a criticism of Chaplin, but simply a preference on my part. He prefers to go for pathos and the big scene (his separation from the boy in The Kid for example) whereas I’ll take the subtler approach. It also felt like Chaplin couldn’t wait to get to his big ending and rushed through the climactic build-up, therefore cutting the tension leading to the resolution. But really, I’m niggling at details here – the film is truly wonderful. Chaplin’s little tramp has never (at least from what I’ve seen) been sweeter and the film is packed with gags and funny bits – far more than I expected. And it’s not just the set piece gags (like the street elevator that the tramp repeatedly barely misses falling into), but it’s all the little bits of business thrown in between them that make Chaplin a genius. A hand gesture here, a cane twirl there, a drunken shuffle across a dance floor…And then while you’re still smiling and laughing at all that small stuff, he hits you with ceiling hung confetti getting mixed in with spaghetti. So yeah, genius is pretty apropos.
Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last stands as a bit of a contrast – not because it isn’t brilliant (it is), but because I came into it knowing nothing at all about its story. The stunts, however, were the known quantity this time – in particular, the iconic image of him dangling from a clock face over a busy downtown city street. Lloyd seems to have found an interesting middle ground between Keaton and Chaplin since he mugs far more to the camera than the former, but doesn’t quite play the emotions across the board like the latter. He uses a strong story line to build towards (with smaller comedic moments along the way) the big set piece at the end. And what a marvelous piece it is too…If the plot of a young man hiding his real job as a department store clerk from his girlfriend (in order to make her think he has a managerial position at the store) doesn’t sound overly original even for 1923, the film keeps it moving forward without lagging or overdoing any particular gag. And then Lloyd gets to his own climactic scene which, in further contrast to Chaplin, he stretches for a full 15-20 minutes as he climbs the outside of the store’s building as a publicity stunt and uses that single concept as a creative wellspring for all manner of athletic comedy. His smaller moments of subtle humor feel a notch below his contemporaries, but when it comes to a major crafted piece of funny business, Harold Lloyd ranks right up there with them. The following year’s Girl Shy has its own long climax that is also a wonder to behold as Lloyd races the clock to prevent a marriage and touches just about every possible mode of transportation.
As with City Lights and Chaplin, I already had a few of Lloyd’s other films under my belt before tackling his most famous. It turns out there’s a reason why both these films are as exhalted as they are in their respective director’s careers – for me, each one comes across as the most fully formed and complete pieces of art they ever made. In the end, if I lean a bit more towards Modern Times as my favourite Chaplin, it doesn’t mean that I don’t see Bresson’s point of view.