the REEL WORLD: 1931

City Lights

Most people, when they think of Charlie Chaplin, think of his Little Tramp character doing slapstick physical comedy. Until I started watching his films, I had a hopelessly limited idea of who and what this complicated little man was. City Lights, considered one of his greatest films, is a silent made when the talkies were taking over the industry. As in so many of his silent films, Chaplin conveys great humor, intelligence, depth of feeling, dignity, and pathos through facial expressions and gestures. He exercised nearly complete creative control in City Lights, which he wrote, directed, produced, and edited -- he even composed the music.

City Lights is the story of the Little Tramp's meeting a young blind woman and helping her regain her sight, interspersed with the Tramp's hilarious encounters with a rich man who is friendly and generous when drunk, but a mean old grinch when he's sober. Through several plot twists, the Tramp ends up with enough money to pay for the flower girl's eye surgery, but ends up more destitute than ever himself. The last scene may be one of the most moving ever put on film: the Tramp returns to the flower shop, looking wistfully in at the newly sighted young woman, who of course doesn't recognize him. He looks so pathetic that she goes out to put a flower in his lapel, and when she touches him, she realizes who he is. Words can't even begin to do it justice. If you've never seen this, go rent it now.

Frankenstein

Not the first, but certainly the most famous of the movies about Frankenstein's monster, played here by Boris Karloff. The December, 1931, issue of Reel Journal (as quoted by the Box Office magazine Web site), had several suggestions for theater owners wanting to promote this film: "Advertise this as a thrill shocker. Every star is a bet. Use large cut-outs of 'The Monster' in your lobby. Arouse public curiosity by stating: 'To have seen Frankenstein is to wear a badge of courage.'" Interesting to think of how contemporary people thought of these classics, isn't it?

The influence of the special effects and the setting of this movie on subsequent horror movies, especially so many of the pulpy '50s ones, can't be overstated: the dark castle set against the stormy sky, the machines with the arcs of electricity zapping skyward, the platform with the Monster's body rising toward the ceiling -- all have become cultural symbols, as has Karloff's Monster. What surprised me when I saw this film was the sympathetic treatment of the Monster: there are scenes where he seems to have a childlike innocence and curiosity. I'm thinking especially of his interaction with Maria, a little girl who offers him one of the flowers that she is picking. He is intrigued by the flowers and the way the petals float on a nearby body of water; when the petals are gone, he picks up Maria and throws her in as well, assuming she'll float the same way. Instead, she drowns, thus inciting the mob who eventually kills him. Samuel Stoddard's At-a-Glance review perceptively states that this scene "perfectly characterizes the monster's frustration with and incomprehension of the world to which he was brought." Interestingly enough, this scene of the drowning was cut from contemporary prints of the movie, and was not restored until years later. The Films of the Golden Age Web site contains an interview with Marilyn Harris, who played Maria.

Parlor, Bedroom and Bath

One of Buster Keaton's early talkies, Parlor, Bedroom and Bath was produced by Keaton himself. Involving Keaton, a hotel room, and at least four women, it isn't particularly memorable or noteworthy, except that Keaton speaks. Not much of it stuck with me, which is why I recommend Our Hospitality, Seven Chances, or Steamboat Bill, Jr. instead.

Platinum Blonde

This one's a lot of fun. Directed by Frank Capra and starring Jean Harlow, Robert Williams, and Loretta Young, it's the story of Stew Smith (Williams), a down-to-earth reporter and his romance with and marriage to Ann Schuyler (Harlow), a wealthy woman who wants to transform him into the kind of man who will be acceptable in her social circles. Meanwhile, one of Smith's co-workers, a sharp and feisty woman named Gallagher, is obviously attracted to him, and not at all impressed by Schuyler's efforts.

The three leads are wonderful, especially Harlow and Williams (both of whom died young). Nothing matches the way Harlow's eyes blaze when she's angry, or the way she smolders when she's turned on. Williams is cocky and sexy and street-smart. The dialogue pops, the characterizations (particularly of Smith's drinking buddies) are perfect, and Smith and Schuyler's divorce is obviously the right thing and refreshingly free of the moralizing that was to show up after the Hays Code started being enforced in earnest.


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Emily Way (emily@vex.net)
Last updated October 19, 1998