#172. Blindness

In a medium that so heavily relies on visuals, blind characters make for interesting plot points. It can be easy to show the audience something that other characters don’t get to see, even if they aren’t blind. However, when the audience sees the events unfolding around a blind person, they’ll want to shout out, knowing that the character cannot see what’s happening. Often, this is used for comedic effect, since the oblivious character has no idea how close to destruction they have come. On the flip side, the audience is impressed if a blind person can avoid danger, but even more impressed if they can fight it off. We are often inspired by those who can overcome their handicaps, and blindness is just such an example. This week’s two films examine some characters who are affected by blindness.

City LightsCity Lights
Year: 1931
Rating: G
Length: 87 minutes / 1.45 hours

There have been a few blind people who have become famous for being able to overcome their blindness. For instance, Helen Keller was not only blind but deaf as well. She still managed to live an inspiring life. Fortunately for the world of music, Ray Charles wasn’t deaf. However, he made it a point to not let his handicap hinder his life. He may have been blind, but he never let it stop him from changing the musical landscape into what we hear today. Still, even though many people can live normal lives with blindness, those of us who can see will often give them charity. Blindness does limit a person’s life somewhat, so we are more than willing to help those who cannot see. When it comes down to it, the kindness of strangers can be brought out through the simple acts of helping those who need help.

On a day like any other, a blind girl (Virginia Cherrill) was selling flowers on a street corner when a man came by and bought one of her wares. She tried to give him his change, but he had already left. The next day, the man continued his generosity by buying out the girl’s entire supply. He then drove her home in a very fancy car, which contrasted the small apartment where she lived with her grandmother (Florence Lee). The man reads a letter to her, which informs them that the two women will be evicted from their apartment soon if they don’t pay up. Feeling moved by their plight, the man promises to help obtain the money. Furthermore, he has learned of an operation that could restore the girl’s sight, which is also expensive. When the girl receives the money, the man disappears. Now that she can see, she keeps watch at her flower shop for a wealthy benefactor, only to find the man is not who she thought he was.

The Book of EliThe Book of Eli
Year: 2010
Rating: R
Length: 118 minutes / 1.97 hours

Blindness can be caused in many ways. Sometimes it’s a medical abnormality that steals someone’s sight. Other times, it’s caused by external forces. Your mother always told you to never look directly at the sun and to not sit too close to the television because she didn’t want you to go blind. However, what if your eyes were damaged from something else? In the case of the superhero known as Daredevil, he was blinded by chemicals but soon finds his other senses heightened to the point that his blindness is actually a superpower. In these instances, fighting in conditions like darkened rooms and heavy fog can actually be an advantage to the blind. But, what if the world enters a post-apocalyptic era where the sun could easily blind someone, even if they don’t look directly at it? Will it become a case of the blind leading the blind?

For 30 years, the world has been reeling from a nuclear apocalypse which has caused the sun to shine a much harsher light on the land. A traveler by the name of Eli (Denzel Washington) makes his way into a town run by Carnegie (Gary Oldman). It turns out that both men can read, which is a rare skill after the apocalypse destroyed most of the literature in the world. When Carnegie learns Eli has a particular book in his possession, he sets out to get that book. Unfortunately, Eli is skilled at fighting and can fend off wave after wave of attackers. SPOILER ALERT Eventually, Carnegie gets the book Eli was holding: a copy of the Bible. With this book in hand, Carnegie had plans to control the region but soon realizes this won’t be possible because the book is written in braille. Freed from Carnegie’s pursuit, Eli arrives in San Francisco, where he recites the whole Bible from memory. Now it can be printed again.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 sightless stories

#171. Flower Girl

Poverty can be a difficult situation to pull yourself out of. Even if the situation was out of your control, if you find yourself with no money, how would you go on living? In this highly consumerist society, money can be essential to survive. But sometimes it takes money to make money, so where would that initial money come from? Furthermore, what if you’re disabled? What if you are coming from a less-than-ideal home life? Often, panhandlers will ask for handouts from strangers to get by. However, those who offer a product or service will tend to fare better at obtaining money. One of the basic tropes of poverty is that of the flower girl. A young woman who has collected flowers and sells them to those passing by on the street can make a meager living, even if it’s not ideal. This week’s two films feature flower girls in key roles.

PygmalionPygmalion
Year: 1938
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 89 minutes / 1.48 hours

The signs of a poor family are not always as obvious as someone standing on a street corner with a cardboard sign in their hands. Sometimes poverty induces other conditions, becoming an action that produces unintended consequences. Some of these conditions include dirty and ratty clothing, questionable hygiene, and an uneducated manner. Without money, clothes cannot be cleaned or repaired, bodies cannot be washed, and minds cannot be developed. As such, many will often immediately judge people with these conditions, thinking they purposely put themselves in their lowly situation. To help these people, money could be used. However, the better solution is to dig down deep and fix the underlying conditions that perpetuate the stereotype. Even changing someone’s voice can make a world of difference.

Selling flowers on a London street corner, Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller) is trying to make some money to bring home to her morally-reprehensible father. Unaware of anything about Eliza other than her terrible cockney accent, Professor Henry Higgins (Leslie Howard) has decided to take her in so he can teach her to speak correctly, thus proving that she could pass as a member of the upper class. And even though she does finally get rid of the cockney accent, a trip to the racetrack shows Professor Higgins that he still has some work to do in order to change Eliza into an upstanding member of high society. When he takes her to a ball to show off his work, she finally passes the test, but now feels alienated. The lifestyle of the rich is uncomfortable to her, and the life of a lowly flower girl is now below someone who speaks so well.

City LightsCity Lights
Year: 1931
Rating: G
Length: 87 minutes / 1.45 hours

Many of Charlie Chaplin’s best films center around his film persona of “The Little Tramp.” In using slapstick and other comedic situations, the down-and-out character survives each day by taking on odd jobs, stealing food, and finding anywhere he can to sleep. Even though these films are funny, there are still elements of truth to the challenges of poverty. Occasionally, the Tramp will pick up other characters who share in his plight. From a dog in A Dog’s Life (1918) to a child in The Kid (1921), the man who is just trying to get by on his own soon has to take care of someone other than himself. This adds heart to the film as he struggles against the established society that perpetuates his poverty. In City Lights (1931), Chaplin’s Little Tramp befriends a flower girl who has a serious medical condition: she’s blind.

Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp doesn’t initially know that the blind girl (Virginia Cherrill) is blind when he buys a flower from her, but soon realizes her plight after he saves a millionaire (Harry Myers) from suicide. This is because, after a night of celebrating a new outlook on life, the millionaire allows the Tramp to buy all the girl’s flowers and drive her home. It is here that he finds the girl living with her grandmother (Florence Lee) in a small apartment that they are about to be evicted from. After a falling out with the millionaire, the Tramp takes it upon himself to raise the money for the girl to not only stay in her apartment but to get a surgery that could allow her to see again. Despite his failures at the many odd jobs he acquires, the Tramp once again runs across the millionaire, who gives him $1,000 to help the girl. Unfortunately, certain events get the Tramp arrested. Once he gets out of jail, he sees the flower girl has escaped her life of poverty.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 fantastic flower girls

#060. Silent Comedy

In today’s modern film world, many things are communicated through the use of sound. This includes such things as dialogue and sound effects. However, at the dawn of cinema, there were no such luxuries. As a result, many things needed to be shown on the screen and heard through the musical score. If any dialogue happened, it needed to be displayed as text on the screen, because there were no microphones to record the conversation and syncing the dialogue to the actors’ lips was even more difficult. This is perhaps why these silent films relied a lot on big physical actions to convey emotions because too many title frames would get far too boring. As a result, many comedies did well in this era because the laughs come from visual gags based in Vaudevillian stage acts. This week’s two films highlight the two masters of the silent comedy: Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

220px-modern_times_posterModern Times
Year: 1936
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 87 minutes / 1.45 hours

Modern Times (1936) is an interesting data point for silent comedies because it wasn’t entirely silent. “Talkies” had been out for almost a decade by this point, but Charlie Chaplin decided his work came across better as a silent film (much like George Valentin in The Artist (2011)). Along with The Gold Rush (1925) and City Lights (1931), Modern Times is listed as one of the top 100 films of the last century at #58, #11, and #78, respectively. As such, Charlie Chaplin is considered the best in terms of silent-era comedies. And yet, Chaplin’s comedies weren’t just for entertainment; they were often made to prove a point. In fact, The Great Dictator (1940) was his only Best Picture nomination (albeit for a “talkie”), due to his strong stance against the Nazi regime that was in power in Germany at the time.

The film that perhaps started his activism was Modern Times. While being similar in message to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), Modern Times brought forth the idea that machines were starting to control society in a much lighter manner than its German counterpart. The Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) is trying to fit into a society that is rapidly advancing past him (perhaps as a nod to the advent of sound). When he tries to keep a job working with the machines, it becomes clear that he cannot assimilate, which causes his boss to throw him into a mental institution. With his aversion to the mechanical world he lives in, the Tramp gets out of the loony bin and is promptly labeled a Communist by others. Modern Times is about a cog that can’t quite fit in and was Charlie Chaplin’s last silent film.

The GeneralThe General
Year: 1926
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 107 minutes / 1.78 hours

Another staple of the silent film comedy genre is the work of Buster Keaton. However, ironically enough, The General (1926) plays more like an action film than a comedy. Keaton’s skill in silent films comes with his use of slapstick comedy, which produced a lot of action in The General. The American Film Institute most recently put The General on its top 100 list at #18. And while Keaton has many other films (Sherlock, Jr. (1924), Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), The Navigator (1924), and Seven Chances (1925), just to name a few) that are excellent examples of silent comedy, The General is his best work as an actual film. Since it was near the end of his career, this film showed all that he had learned over the years.

While Buster Keaton directed this movie, he also acts in the lead role, Johnny Gray. The setting for this film is around the time of the American Civil War. As war breaks out, Johnny enlists to fight as a soldier for the Confederacy but is reassigned to the position of engineer due to his love of trains. However, his human love, Annabelle (Marion Mack) thinks he was reassigned due to cowardice. When the Union takes control of his train, The General, with Annabelle on board, Johnny gets a chance to rescue her (and his beloved train). Can he turn the tide of battle, or will the Union remain victorious?

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 silent slapstick gems

#059. Charlie Chaplin

While Mr. Popper’s Penguins (2012) is by no means a good movie (in my opinion), its one redeeming quality may be that it could introduce modern moviegoers to the works of Charlie Chaplin. What is more impressive than the fact that Chaplin directed, acted, wrote, and pretty much did everything in producing his movies is that, when film was being destroyed for its Nitrogen content, he made sure his were not recycled, thus preserving his spot in cinema history. It is unfortunate that many films were lost during this era due to the recycling of film, but that makes what has survived that much more culturally significant to protect. Nonetheless, with three of his movies appearing on the American Film Institute Top 100 list (in both iterations), it is no doubt that Charlie Chaplin truly founded the comedy film genre that has evolved and changed over the years to what it is today. This week’s two films highlight some great examples of Chaplin’s career.

The Gold RushThe Gold Rush
Year: 1925
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 95 minutes / 1.58 hours

Part of Chaplin’s charm came from his “Tramp” character, which starred in thirteen of his 80+ films. Not only was the trademark hat, mustache, and cane part of the look, but the mannerisms of the “down and out, but not completely down and out” character made Chaplin an iconic player in the silent comedy genre. If you want to know where slapstick comedy came from, this is one of its origins (based in Vaudevillian stage acts). The twitch of the nose, constant double takes, and a waddling walk all contributed to the comedy that is Chaplin’s “Tramp.” And while City Lights (1931) might be the most romantic of Chaplin’s best, The Gold Rush (1925) certainly has the most action of all the “Tramp” films. I mean, when you have to chase after your own house, there’s certainly a lot of action involved.

With a small cast, The Gold Rush is still complex and full of comedy. Chaplin’s Tramp has traveled up to the Yukon to find his fortune in the Klondike Gold Rush. Due to a blizzard, the Tramp is trapped in a cabin with a prospector and a fugitive. When the weather clears, the Tramp heads into town while the prospector and the fugitive fight for the claim that the prospector had found before becoming trapped in the storm. While in town, the Tramp falls in love with a saloon girl, whose flirting was actually directed at someone else (despite the Tramp’s clever dance with dinner rolls). And yet, the Tramp’s past comes back when the prospector arrives in town with a case of amnesia. He enlists the assistance of the Tramp to help him find his claim. Will the Tramp give up prospecting to pursue the saloon girl, or will he follow his amnesiac friend back into the wintry wilderness?

Modern Times220px-modern_times_poster
Year: 1936
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 87 minutes / 1.45 hours

As was the case with many silent-era actors, the advent of sound affected many of them. They had a good thing going, but then everyone became interested in the “talkies,” and ticket sales dried up. Considering that many who made films in Hollywood’s infancy were “jacks of all trades,” the loss in revenue was severe. And yet, even with The Great Depression happening at the same time, there were some who chose to continue with what they were good at, despite the resistance to silent films. Charlie Chaplin had gained his fame in the silent era, and he was one of the fortunate ones who could ride that fame into the era of sound. Modern Times (1936) was the last of his silent films and was a retaliation to the technology that had changed the film landscape.

Using some dialogue and sound effects, Modern Times wasn’t completely silent, but the majority of it was, which just emphasized the parts that did use sound. Chaplin’s “Tramp” plays a factory worker who goes mad and causes chaos in the factory where he works. After he gets out of the insane asylum, he’s thrown in jail upon suspicion of being a Communist. In an unintended turn of events, he gets out of jail, but finds life on the outside is difficult. Consequently, he actually tries to get back into prison. Despite his best efforts, he keeps failing at being arrested but does eventually end up back behind bars. Fortunately, when he gets out again, he finds work, first at a factory, then at a café. Still, the Tramp’s life is uncertain as he walks into the sunrise of a new day.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 Chaplin triumphs

Bacon #: 2 (The Gentleman Trap / Walter Matthau -> JFK / Kevin Bacon)