On Friday there were a bunch of new films opening, but then I noticed there's a Chaplin festival over at the Aero Theatre, located on Santa Monica's tony Montana Ave. I already own Chaplin's work on videotape and DVD, but I believe great films, especially comedies, are meant to be seen on the big screen with an audience. Still, I did wait across the street until I was sure there'd be at least 100 people inside. (While I was waiting, I saw Brenda Strong walk by. She's probably best known as Mary Alice Young on Desperate Housewives, but when I look at her I think of candy bar heiress Sue Ellen Mischke from Seinfeld.)
City Lights and A Woman Of Paris were showing, in new 35mm prints. Standing on line (and a slow line it was), I heard a couple complaining that the poster announced the titles with no more info. Seriously? Had they not at least heard of City Lights, cinema classic? Actually, if they hadn't, so much the better. Nothing like going in completely ignorant. The woman (in the couple) started talking about how she liked Chaplin, but preferred Keaton. Chaplin must be spinning in his grave. Then she talked about how the modern-day equivalent of Keaton is Michael Cera, so I guess Buster started spinning, too.
I've written about City Lights before, as have so many others. It's Chaplin at his best, and bravely (or was it just fear?) sticking to silence in the sound era. Some mock Chaplin for his reliance on sentiment. Okay, he's not Keaton, but he's such a magnificent performer he's able to pull it off--at least here, especially at the famous ending. My favorite Chaplin feature is The Gold Rush (which is less sentimental), but there are times I think I should switch.
This time around I noticed the supporting cast is pretty good. Very often, with great clowns, everyone else is just there to make the main guy look good. But Chaplin does give moments to the others, even allowing them laughs. Of course, their acting is his acting. He'd perform precisely what he wanted, and they were then supposed to imitate him. Chaplin was a control freak who took as long as needed to get the shot, and if he didn't like an actor, he'd replace him. Virginia Cherill, who plays the blind girl, isn't a great thespian, but she looks right for the part and he basically forced a performance out of her. Others, especially Harry Myers as the Millionaire and Hank Mann as the Prizefighter, are actually memorable.
I'd seen A Woman Of Paris on the big screen before, but it had been long ago, and I hadn't been that impressed. I was eager to give the film, which some call a masterpiece, another chance. Alas, it's "not bad." I'd call it more a fascinating oddity in Chaplin's career than anything else. Chaplin stalwart Edna Purviance finally gets a chance to star in her own feature sans Charlie, but the story isn't much: A gal from the provinces moves to Paris and becomes a rich man's mistress. She goes back and forth between the rich Parisian and her old love, until there's trouble.
It's a pretty basic melodrama (though generally not overacted, thanks to Chaplin). The design is nice, and Adolphe Menjou comes across well, but there's not much here. Allegedly it inspired Lubitsch to make sophisticated comedy, and I'm grateful for that. But otherwise, it's too bad that Chaplin spent some of his prime years working on this when he could have been making another classic feature. Perhaps he just needed to get it out of his system.