Film Society Selection
book a ticket for this BFS screenings please contact the SHP Box Office
on 01344 484123 or click the logo below to book via the SHP website.
Tickets (for this silent film): £10.10, Conc £9.10, Members £8.50
BFS Members £7.50 BFS members may be asked to show your membership card. Phone reservations can be held for 4 days.
Tuesday 14th August 7.30 pm
THIS FILM WON JUST 3 AWARDS:National Board of Review, USA 1931 - Top Ten Films Award
National Film Preservation Board, USA 1991 - National Film Registry Award
Online Film & Television Association 2005
OFTA Film Hall of Fame - Motion Picture Award
Mingled with mirth in a production of admirable artistry and proving the eloquence of silence - Mordaunt Hall, NEW YORK TIMES, 1931
Film Society is delighted to welcome Jillian Jenkins who will play an improvised
piano accompaniment to the film.
It was 1928, just months after the first talkie had hit theaters, and Charlie Chaplins life was a mess. Hed recently been through a highly publicized divorce. His ex-wife was selling stories to tabloids detailing his many affairs. The IRS was hounding him for $1.6 million in unpaid taxes. On top of his private woes, Chaplins career was on the ropes. As talking pictures swept the nation, silent filmthe art form hed elevated to new heightswas flickering out. In the last few years, major studios had stopped investing in the medium, and Charlie Chaplin, the worlds biggest movie star, had considered retiring.
But instead of packing
it in, Chaplin decided to fight back. He wanted to produce one final
movie that would put talkies in their place and showcase the great
beauty of silence. When no one would finance his picture, he doubled
down on his bet, cashing out his entire stock portfolio to finance it
In The Artist, George Valentin is a silent movie star who stubbornly refuses to change with the times and embrace talking pictures. Its a story that echoes the real-life dilemma faced by Charlie Chaplin in the late 1920s. Against all commercial odds, Chaplin gambled everything on City Lights, a silent film that bucked the trend and stands as one of the great landmarks in cinema.
Filmed eighty years apart, The Artist and City Lights elicited similar reactions. Just as todays movie fans are amazed at how bold it is for a black-and-white silent film to be presented in the digital era (never mind be an Oscar frontrunner), they were equally abuzz when City Lights premiered. Indeed, on January 29, 1931, the Los Angeles Times called it the first non-dialogue film of importance to be produced since the advent of the talkies.
Nothing could deter me from making it, Chaplin said. Yet, 18 months and $2 million into shooting City Lights, Chaplin found himself wading in unfamiliar waters.
Hed never spent this much time working on a picture. Hits such as The Gold Rush (1925) and The Circus (1928) had been shot and stitched together effortlessly. But as the clock ticked and silent film became increasingly outdated, Chaplins anxiety rose. He fired his lead actress. He canceled shoots. He left actors waiting on set for full days at a time. Instead of a movie, he had a patchwork of disjointed scenes and sight gags. Hollywood insiders had already written him off, publicly proclaiming his downfall. For Chaplin, the stakes couldnt have been higher. The fate of his career hinged on the success of this film.
From the beginning, Chaplin knew City Lights would be about blindness. His original plot involved a circus clown who loses his sight, then must hide the fact from his sickly child. After tweaking the concept, Chaplin settled on an idea he liked better: his signature character the Tramp would fall in love with a blind flower girl, then try valiantlyand comicallyto help her restore her sight. Along the way hed befriend a drunk, enter a boxing match, get a job, lose that job, party with millionaires, get mistaken for a burglar, and land in jail. But not before coming to the flower girls rescue.
Chaplins biggest hurdle was finding a girl who could look blind without detracting from her beauty. He rejected nearly 20 actresses before discovering Virginia Cherrill sitting ringside at a boxing match. As he studied the 20-year-old society girl, Chaplin thought she was blind. It turned out she was just extremely nearsighted and had refused to wear glasses out of vanity. Chaplin didnt mind that she had no experience as an actress. As a Svengali-like auteur, he routinely molded his costars with explicit directions about every gesture and expression. One of the young actors who played a street tough in City Lights opined, I think Charlie wouldve much rather played all the parts himself if he could.
Working with Chaplin could be exhausting. While the director was fair in many regardshe was scrupulous about paying the crew for their timehe was also erratic. Of the 534 days scheduled for filming on City Lights, Chaplin only filmed on 166. When he did shoot, he ran the cast ragged. The director demanded perfection, and his lead actress suffered the most. Chaplin hounded her. He belittled her. He drove her through 342 takes on a single scene alone. When Cherrill bristled, he called her an amateur. Then one day, when she returned late from lunch, he fired her. Chaplin recast the part with his Gold Rush leading lady Georgia Hale.
Before long, Chaplin realized his mistakethe time spent directing Hale and the cost of reshooting Cherrills scenes would set him back too far. In desperation, he re-hired Cherrill, though now at twice her original salary. The friction between the two leads was palpable, and it wasnt just about money. As Cherrill said, Charlie never liked me, and I never liked Charlie. Yet, none of that animosity shows on screen; their scenes together are heartbreakingly tender, and some of the most extraordinary in all of ciThe Bet on the Table
For City Lights to truly outshine the talkies, Chaplin knew he couldnt rely on gags alone. In previous films, hed built thin scripts around a series of vaudeville set pieces. This time he insisted that plot and characters drive the actiona modern notion for comedies. He also retooled his storytelling: Chaplin interweaved the pathos and comedy to wrench more emotion from each scene. When a lonely millionaire contemplates suicide, its tragic. When the Good Samaritan Tramp attempts to save him from drowning, and accidentally ends up with a weight pinned to his own neck, the laughs come quickly.
For Chaplin, even the use of sound had to be innovative. In one scene, the Tramp accidentally swallows a penny whistle during a performance, then tries to contain himself as he hiccups an aria. This wasnt standard Mickey Mousing, or punctuating a gag with a sound effect; Chaplin was doing something novelusing sound as the punchline.
Chaplin took nearly three
years to complete City Lights. But even with a great film in the can,
the odds were stacked against him. Despite his incredible track record,
theaters had a wait-and-see attitude before theyd commit to screening
the film. For its New York City debut, Chaplin was forced to roll out
City Lights with a soft opening at an off the beaten path,
white elephant movie house. Determined to make the film
a success, Chaplin took over the movies PR and marketing. He dyed
his hair. He talked up his fitness routine to reporters to prove he
was still in his prime. And he sank $30,000 (equivalent to nearly $500,000
today) into buying newspaper ads, hiring ushers, and even having a new
electric marquee installed at the theater. Chaplin obsessed over every
detail. But ultimately, the public would decide.
When City Lights finally debuted in New York in 1931, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. The film was so popular that the theater had showings from 9 a.m. to midnight continuously, every day except Sunday. According to historian Charles Maland, by the end of 1931, the [United Artists] ledgers reveal, City Lights had already accumulated more domestic rentals than The Circus and over 90 percent of the domestic rentals that The Gold Rush had garnered since 1925. Critics showered praise as well. The New York Times declared, Mr. Chaplins shadow has grown no less.
For a short period, it seemed that Chaplin had accomplished what he set out to do. Studios invested in silent pictures again. Screen legend Douglas Fairbanks Sr. talked excitedly about returning to the medium. And in 1931, the Oscar for Best Cinematography went to another silent film, Tabu. Many expected City Lights to nab the award, but it wasnt nominated. As film historian William M. Drew wrote, Perhaps Chaplins perceived audacity in persisting in making a silent film in Hollywood after sound had arrived ... seemed too great an act of insubordination for the industry to honor.
But the swing back to silent films could never last. In a 1973 interview with director Peter Bogdanovich, Chaplin confessed that City Lights was his favorite of his films. Indeed, its often declared the most Chaplin of his movies because it bridges all of his strengthsthe highbrow and the low, the serious and the slapstick. And while City Lights is considered the last of Chaplins silent films (it had sound, but no speech), the film marks the first time the director used his camera as a soapbox. As the Tramp pinballs between the worlds of the rich and the poor, Chaplin is highlighting the issues of the class divide. City Lights kick-started Chaplins move both to more political films, and to a more political life. In 1936, Modern Times voiced his anxieties about industry and society. And in 1940, Chaplin used The Great Dictator to bullhorn his opposition to Hitler.
But what makes City Lights a masterpiece isnt its politics, or its silence, or even the fact that countless later movies have borrowed from it. What makes City Lights special, quite simply, is the story.
Perhaps the surest confirmation that City Lights was a masterpiece came at its Los Angeles premiere, where Chaplins friend Albert Einstein, the worlds greatest thinker and humanist, was in the audience. During the final scene I noticed Einstein wiping his eyes, Chaplin reported.
Bill DeMain of Mental Floss