What: City Lights
Where: Powell Symphony Hall, St. Louis
When: December 29 and 30, 2010
Referring to the ambiguous final frames of Charlie Chaplin's romantic comedy City Lights (Will the Blind Girl still love The Tramp now that her sight has been restored and she can see he's not the gentleman she thought him to be?), film archivist Reg Hartt noted "roughly 20% of every audience I have ever shown the film to needs to be left alone for about fifteen minutes when the picture ends." The enthusiastic applause that followed the movie and the orchestra's flawless live performance of the score made that kind of contemplation impractical at the time, but on the drive home it was possible to reflect on just how anarchically funny and oddly touching Chaplin's masterpiece still is nearly 80 years after its premiere.
Although talkies were already the rage by 1931, Chaplin kept City Lights voice free, convinced that The Tramp would be more of a universal character if he didn't speak. There's a soundtrack with music and synchronized sound effects—including one brilliant scene involving a swallowed whistle and a pack of dogs—but dialogue is still shown with silent film intertitles. It was a smart choice; without extraneous chat, Chaplin's brilliantly choreographed physical comedy takes center stage. The famous boxing sequence, in which Chaplin dances around Eddie Baker's hapless Referee in an effort to avoid Hank Mann's formidable Prizefighter, is just one of a sequence of comic set pieces that are so hilarious because they are so precise.
In classic auteur fashion, Chaplin produced, wrote, directed, and (for the first time) composed the music for City Lights. By contemporary standards the score is a bit lightweight, repeating a relatively small set of themes with little elaboration, but it serves the film extraordinarily well. Ever the perfectionist, Chaplin labored long and hard over very page. The finished product, in a 2004 performing edition by Timothy Brock, integrates so seamlessly with the on-screen action that, as Brock observed, spoken dialogue "would not only be repetitive but it would be counterproductive".
Performing a live score in synch with a film requires a degree of precision and attention to detail that Chaplin would have understood and which David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony possess in abundance. The comedic moments were appropriately rambunctious, while the sentimental scenes—usually accompanied by a string quartet—were utterly charming. The whole experience was, in short, an aural and visual delight.
There's something oddly comforting in the realization that a film made so many decades ago can still enchant and entertain an audience in the Internet Age. St. Louisans have one more chance to experience that enchantment on Thursday, December 30th, at 7:30 PM. As a late holiday treat, it's hard to beat. City Lights runs just under 90 minutes and it's family friendly in the best sense of the term in that both kids and adults will find it entertaining. You can even bring your popcorn and drinks into the hall. For more information, call the box office at 314-534-1700 or visit the web site at stlsymphony.org.