Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights” is one of those rare films that will make you laugh until you cry, and then, in its final moments, make you cry for real. It’s considered by many critics to be the apex of Chaplin’s long career, and it’s frequently cited as one of the greatest films ever made. The 1931 masterpiece will close the Spokane International Film Festival on Saturday night, and the screening will feature musical accompaniment by the Spokane Symphony.
The symphony has presented similar cinematic concerts in the past, providing live scores for such classic films as “Nosferatu,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Casablanca” and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” Conductor Jorge Luis Uzcátegui, who will be leading the orchestra Saturday night, was also behind the podium for the “Psycho” concert, and he says the “City Lights” score will be considerably more difficult to pull off.
“This has been one of the most challenging tasks I’ve ever come across,” he said. “ ‘Psycho’ was about 45 minutes of music and an hour and a half of movie. The ‘Psycho’ music is technically harder, but (‘City Lights’) is around an hour and a half of music, nonstop.”
The musical score for “City Lights” was composed by Chaplin himself – the director reportedly sang the melodies out loud and songwriter Arthur Johnston transcribed them – and it features more than 100 musical cues and several synchronized sound effects. Although the music itself is technically uncomplicated, Uzcátegui says that keeping the score perfectly synced with the comic moments on the screen is the main challenge.
“There are different leitmotifs that represent different characters and settings in the movie,” he said. “Immersing yourself so completely in the work, it’s almost like writing a dissertation: You have to know what the characters are doing, how they’re doing it and how to make the music match them. … It’s very simple music, but I don’t think it needs to be complicated in order to be good.”
When “City Lights” went into production in late 1928, silent films were already on the way out. “The Jazz Singer” had premiered the previous year, making talkies the new phenomenon in Hollywood, but Chaplin maintained his skepticism about the addition of sound and spoken dialogue to motion pictures. (The opening moments of “City Lights” feature characters who open their mouths to speak, only to produce deliberately unintelligible squawks.)
In the film, Chaplin stars as his iconic Little Tramp character, who becomes smitten with a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill). Through a series of comic complications, the Tramp convinces the flower girl that he’s actually wealthy, but his plan backfires when he’s tasked with both saving her from eviction and funding an operation that could restore her eyesight.
The movie’s iconic final scene ensures that there’s never a dry eye in the house, but looking beyond the central romance, much of “City Lights” is structured as a collection of comic sketches. Chaplin’s infamous perfectionism is on full display in some of the most exquisitely choreographed slapstick of his career: The sequence that details the Tramp’s drunken carousing with a suicidal millionaire (Harry Myers) is a small masterpiece of physical comedy, and there’s an uproarious episode involving a boxing match that becomes something of a comic ballet.
Production on “City Lights” stretched on for nearly two years, and by the time Chaplin had finished the editing process in late 1931, silents were officially passe. Despite being released at the height of the Great Depression, the movie was a commercial success – Chaplin actually toured the country with the film – and its legacy has continued to grow. The American Film Institute has included it on its lists of the best comedies, romances and inspirational films, and it was ranked No. 11 in its poll of the greatest films ever made.
“If only one of Charles Chaplin’s films could be preserved,” Roger Ebert wrote in 1997, “ ‘City Lights’ would come the closest to representing all the different notes of his genius.”
The Tramp remained a silent character because Chaplin feared, perhaps wisely, that giving him spoken dialogue would torpedo his international appeal. Uzcátegui points out that orchestral music affects us similarly: Regardless of a piece’s era or country of origin, the impact of the music is rarely lost in translation.
“Modern films seem to be so concerned with special effects and explosions and wars and things like that,” Uzcátegui said. “But this movie will continue to be beautiful in the year 3000. We relate to it, and it doesn’t need to be spoken in any language for us to understand it.”
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