Charlie Chaplin is funny.
I realize that should be an incontrovertible statement, along the lines of “The sky is blue” or “The Jacksonville Jaguars are not very good this year.” After all, Chaplin is the comedian of film. A legend, a genius, not just one of the perfectionists of movie comedy, but one of its inventors.
But does Chaplin’s comedy still make people laugh, generations later? Do 21st century audiences respond the way they do to, say, “This is the End” or “The Office?” He may be a genius, but is his genius still relevant?
The answer is a resounding yes. About a year ago, I took my two daughters to a screening of “City Lights” at the Chazen Museum of Art, sponsored by the Cinematheque. And the audience, young and old, was roaring with laughter from the very first scene, when the Little Tramp wakes up on a giant statue that’s being dedicated by the city muckety-mucks, and ends up impaled by his pants on the statue’s majsestic spear.
Now, Criterion has released a gorgeous Blu-ray/DVD combo edition of “City Lights,” and it’s more than just a handsome package of one of the greatest films ever made. It’s funny.
As the extras on the Criterion edition make clear, particularly a lively commentary track by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance, “City Lights” wasn’t just a comedy. It was an act of defiance, a silent film made four years after talkies were introduced. Chaplin thumbed his nose at sound in the very first scene, as the soundtrack to the sound of the muckety-mucks pontificating is not dialogue, but nonsense squeaks and squawks. Words were superfluous to Chaplin, who proved in “City Lights” he could make the audience laugh with a deft piece of physical comedy, then turn around and make them tear up with the right expression on the Tramp’s face, gazing with love at the blind flower girl.
Chaplin’s successors in modern comedy probably aren’t live actors, but animated ones, so it’s fitting that Aardman Animation co-founder Peter Lord appears in a featurette to talk about Chaplin’s influence on “Wallace & Gromit.” There’s also priceless footage of Chaplin painstakingly rehearsing his visual gags until he got them just perfect. Chaplin used his clout in Hollywood to buy himself the most precious commodity of all — time, enough time to make his films just the way he wanted them.
The phrase “magic of cinema” is a horribly overused cliche, one that should never be uttered outside an Oscar montage introduction. But that “City Lights,” made 85 years ago, on technology that seems primitive today, can reach across the generations and make me and my children double over with laughter? What else would you call that if not magic?