When they’re not hanging out waiting for the train to arrive, the actresses of silent comedy tend to sit quietly in their skirts on the outskirts of the action powerless to alter their fathers’ decisions and dependent on the kindness of strangers. Nonetheless, because men will do anything for the love of a good woman (including act like complete idiots slipping on their own banana peels and pouring drinks down their pants – you know how it goes ladies), it’s the women who ultimately drive all the action.
In “City Lights” (1931) Chaplin’s love interest is a blind woman who cares for her destitute grandmother and a caged bird that is almost certainly allegorical. For a comedy, this film is actually quite poignant especially at its’ honest and uncertain ending where we are left wondering if letting the bird out of its cage has irretrievably damaged its spirit and ultimately broken the heart of our tramp hero.
I much preferred Buster Keaton’s “Sherlock Jr.” (1924) with its’ laugh-out-loud timing and Keaton’s fabulous portrayal of an inept “crime crushing criminologist.” Entrances and exits are beautifully executed and reminiscent of the stage. This similarity is by no means accidental. The film examines the movie as a medium allowing audiences to delight in being in a theater while watching on-screen theater goers who in turn watch a movie in which Keaton literally becomes entangled. The distinction between the reel and reality is blurred by special effects for both the viewer and Keaton’s character creating a real affinity between us and this flawed man. Oh, and did I mention? In this one, the girl saves the day. Eat that, locomotive!