Watch Charlie Chaplin Demand 342 Takes of One Scene from City Lights

The Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion has put out a new edi­tion of Char­lie Chap­lin’s City Lights, and on the disc they’ve includ­ed the rare footage above of Chap­lin direct­ing that most famous of his pic­tures. We see him giv­ing instruc­tions to young Vir­ginia Cher­rill, who appeared in the film as a blind flower girl for whom Chap­lin’s Tramp falls head over heels. Chap­lin’s char­ac­ter approved of Cher­rill much more hearti­ly than Chap­lin him­self did. The direc­tor con­sid­ered the actress an “ama­teur” and remem­bered her often “doing some­thing which wasn’t right. Lines. A line. A con­tour hurts me if it’s not right.” That remark, orig­i­nal­ly made in an inter­view con­duct­ed in 1968, 37 years after City Lights, comes quot­ed in David Robinson’s new book, Chap­lin: His Life and His Art. The New York­er’s Richard Brody also uses it in his post on City Lights and Chap­lin’s direc­tion of Cher­rill, of whom he, for one sequence, demand­ed as many as 342 takes.

Does that send Chap­lin straight to the canon of per­fec­tion­ist film­mak­ers? You may say yes, but Brody, whose pow­ers of cin­e­mat­ic obser­va­tion at times make me want to scrap every­thing and ded­i­cate my life to film crit­i­cism, has a more inter­est­ing response. “It’s tempt­ing to ascribe Chaplin’s obses­sion­al direc­tion,” he argues, “but I think that the episode reveals an even more pow­er­ful strain of Chaplin’s art, a sort of imper­fec­tion­ism.

Chap­lin didn’t have a men­tal tem­plate that he want­ed Cher­rill to match; he approach­es the scene not quite know­ing what he want­ed.” Chap­lin, so it seems, sim­ply worked this way, seek­ing per­fec­tion, but an unusu­al “per­fec­tion of results, 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.” And now you can watch 65 of the fruits of Chap­lin’s quest for this imper­fec­tion­is­tic per­fec­tion for free on our very own col­lec­tion of Chap­lin films on the web.

via The New York­er

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Three Great Films Star­ring Char­lie Chap­lin, the True Icon of Silent Com­e­dy

The Pow­er of Silent Movies, with The Artist Direc­tor Michel Haz­anavi­cius

Hol­ly­wood, Epic Doc­u­men­tary Chron­i­cles the Ear­ly His­to­ry of Cin­e­ma

535 Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, etc.

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, Asia, film, lit­er­a­ture, and aes­thet­ics. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­lesA Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on his brand new Face­book page.

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