Super Tramp

The late film critic Roger Ebert once observed that “if only one of Charles Chaplin’s films could be preserved, City Lights would come the closest to representing all the different notes of his genius.”

Feb. 21, 1931 cover by Rea Irvin, marking the New Yorker’s sixth anniversary.

The New Yorker’s film critic in 1931, John Mosher, would have agreed. Before he previewed the picture, however, Mosher feared (along with others) that the great actor and director had seen his best days…

…instead, the film proved a hit with both audiences and critics, and today is regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. It was no doubt a relief to Ebert when the film was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry.

HE DOES IT ALL…United Artists issued several different types of posters to promote the film, including these two. (IMDB)
A TENDER FELLOW…The Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) encounters a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) on a street corner and is instantly smitten; later that evening the Tramp saves a drunken millionaire (Harry Myers) from suicide. (IMDB)

The film has its tender moments, but being a Chaplin production it also had plenty of slapstick, including this famous scene in which the Tramp and his millionaire friend go out on the town and dig into plates of spaghetti…and in the Tramp’s case, some confetti…

Mosher (and many other critics since) believe the opening scene of the film — in which a statue is unveiled to reveal a sleeping Tramp — was Chaplin’s attack on sound movies:

CAUGHT NAPPING…The Tramp is unveiled along with a statue in the opening scene of City Lights. (IMDB)

Although the film had a full musical score and sound effects, there was no spoken dialogue. Rather, Chaplin poked fun of the tinny-sounding talkies of the day by putting not words, but the sounds of a kazoo, into the mouths of speechifying politicians gathered at the statue’s unveiling…

For all its humor, City Lights was a serious work by a serious actor and director who sought something close to perfection. The scene in which the Tramp encounters a blind flower girl on a street corner required three hundred and forty-two takes with actress Virginia Cherrill, who was a newcomer to film.

Writing in the New Yorker, critic Richard Brody (“Chaplin’s Three Hundred and Forty-Two Takes,” Nov. 19, 2013) noted that “Chaplin didn’t have a mental template that he wanted Cherrill to match; he approaches the scene not quite knowing what he wanted.” Brody observed that the perfection Chaplin sought was one of results, and not of conformity to a preconceived schema. “He sought what provoked, in him, the perfect emotion, the perfect aesthetic response — but he wouldn’t know it until he saw it. He started to shoot in the confidence that the thing — whatever it was — would happen.” Chaplin’s technique can be seen in this clip from the Criterion Collection’s 2013 DVD release of the film. Note that this footage was shot by the New Yorker’s Ralph Barton, a close friend of Chaplin’s:

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Chaplin, Part Two

The Chaplin buzz was not confined to the movie section of the magazine, which featured more insights on the star in “The Talk of the Town.”

GENIUS LOVES COMPANY…Photo of Albert Einstein and Charlie Chaplin at the Los Angeles premiere of City Lights. Einstein said Chaplin was the only person in Hollywood he wanted to meet. (Wikipedia)

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Funny In a Different Way

Like City Lights, Tod Browning’s Dracula is today considered a classic film. Indeed, Bela Lugosi’s timeless portrayal of the old bloodsucker set a standard for vampire flicks and horror films in general. The New Yorker’s John Mosher, however, would have none of it, dismissing the film in a single paragraph.

PAIN INTHE NECK…Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) goes for a nibble on the fragile Mina (Helen Chandler) in 1931’s Dracula. (IMDB)

Mosher was also dismissive of Fritz Lang’s By Rocket to the Moon, originally released in German as Frau Im Mond (Woman in the Moon). The 1929 production is considered one of the first “serious” science fiction movies, anticipating a number of technologies that would actually be used in space travel decades later.

RETRO ROCKET…Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Moon would predict a number of technologies used decades later in actual space flight, including multi-stage rockets. Lang also anticipated the future in the much-acclaimed Metropolis (1927).

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Bored on Broadway

Robert Benchley was visiting friends abroad, so Dorothy Parker did what any pal would do and subbed for his theater column. As it turned out, it was not a happy task, even if she did receive complementary tickets to one of the hottest shows on Broadway:

Having dispatched Katharine Cornell’s Barretts of Wimpole Street, Parker took aim at America’s Sweetheart, based on a book by Herbert Fields with music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Parker ended the savaging with a plea to her dear friend and colleague to return home soon:

THEY LAUGHED, THEY CRIED…Katharine Cornell (left) portrayed Elizabeth Barrett in Barretts of Wimpole Street. Dorothy Parker thought Cornell was a first-rate actress, but didn’t think much of her play. As for Inez Courtney (right) in America’s Sweetheart, Parker believed she did what she could, whatever that meant. (Pinterest)

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Lest We Forget

The New Yorker turned six with this issue, and in the life of any magazine, that is something to be celebrated, and especially in hindsight as our beloved publication closes in on its centenary in 2025.

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From Our Advertisers

We’ve seen in past ads how Prohibition-era vintners marketed grape juice bricks that could be dissolved in water and fermented in the home. In this ad they took it a step further, sending expert cellarers direct to customers’ homes to help them create their own, perfectly legal, wine cellar…

…those with wine cellars might have preferred to live in a “highly restricted” community in Jackson Heights…

…and furnish their homes with the latest in modern furniture design…

…and here we have an early example of the “macho” smoker, anticipating the arrival of his buddy, the Marlboro Man…

…on to our cartoonists, another theater section entry by one of Charlie Chaplin’s closest friends, Ralph Barton

…and cartoons by Peter Arno, who channelled Dracula via his Sugar Daddy…

Garrett Price, and the burdens of the rich…

Denys Wortman examined the follies of youth…

…and we end with dear Helen Hokinson, and the miracle of birth…

Next Time: Chaplin of the Jungle…

Published by

David O

I read and write about history from the perspective that history is not some artifact from the past but a living, breathing condition we inhabit every moment of our lives, or as William Faulkner once observed, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." I read original source materials, such as every issue of The New Yorker, not only as a way to understand a time from a particular perspective, but to also use the source as an aggregator of various historic events. I welcome comments, criticisms, corrections and insights as I stumble along through the century.

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