We here at TVWeek are still having a hard time getting over the fact that Robin Williams is no longer with us. His humor was more than infectious: It was a tonic for our times. With a rat-atat-tat delivery and a mind that shifted gears faster than a Cray computer on overdrive, he made comic observations that had our jaws dropping with amazement at both the speed and pinpoint accuracy of his commentary.
It was hysterically funny because it was so affectingly on target.
Like all the great comedians, Williams was able to look at the world and communicate what he saw just slightly askew.
Another great comedian put it this way: Great humor “is the subtle discrepancy we discern in what appears to be normal behavior. In other words, through humor we see in what seems rational, the irrational; in what seems important, the unimportant. [It] reveals to us that in an over-statement of seriousness lurks the absurd.”
I think Robin would agree with this. It was said by a comedian who was equally the comic genius that Robin was, yet in one very important way his milieu was 180 degrees from the environment in which Williams worked. From “Nanu, Nanu” to his peerless imitations of how almost any celebrity spoke, Robin’s delivery was particularly oral.
The other comedian to whom I refer, Charlie Chaplin, had the genius of pantomime. Williams once said of Chaplin and some of the other early comedians, such as Buster Keaton, that when they were at their best they produced comedy that was great art.
It’s doubtful that Chaplin knew of Williams. Chaplin died in Switzerland on Christmas Day, 1977. That was almost a year before Williams broke though on TV in “Mork & Mindy” in 1978.
James Agee’s great novel “A Death in the Family,” which is set in the early part of the 20th century, before the movies could talk, begins this way:
At supper that night, as many times before, his father said, “Well, spose we go the picture show.”
“Oh Jay!” his mother said. “That horrid little man!”
“What’s wrong with him?” his father asked, not because he didn’t know what she would say, but so she would say it.
“He’s so nasty!” she said, as she always did. “So vulgar!”
Her description, of course, is a prudish one of Chaplin’s tramp character. What the tramp was mostly was so funny!
Believing that laughter is indeed the best medicine — and believing that it’s a prescription Robin Williams would endorse — we suggest you do what we are going to do tonight: Watch one of the greatest comedies ever made, which is also one of the best movies ever made.
It’s Chaplin’s “City Lights.” For those of you who have never seen it, no spoilers here. The late Pulitzer Prize-winning movie critic Roger Ebert, in listing “City Lights” as one of the great movies he had ever seen, wrote, “If only one of Chaplin’s films could be preserved, ‘City Lights’ (1931) would come the closest to representing all the different notes of his genius. It contains the slapstick, the pathos, the pantomime, the effortless physical coordination, the melodrama, the bawdiness, the grace, and, of course, the Little Tramp — the character said, at one time, to be the most famous image on earth. “
The aforementioned James Agee, who was also a movie critic for both Time magazine and The Nation, in an article he wrote for Life magazine in 1949, had this praise for the ending of “City Lights”: “It is enough to shrivel the heart to see, and it is the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in the movies.”
Well, there you have it. I’ve now given you expectations that are almost impossible to meet. All I can say in my defense is that Agee is right.
“City Lights” is on tonight, Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014, at 9:30 p.m. here on the West Coast (12:30 a.m. ET) on TCM (Turner Classic Movies). It’s not available to stream on Netflix, but can be streamed through Amazon’s Instant Video service.
There is no spoken dialogue in “City Lights.” But that’s not to say that it is silent. The movie has a wonderful musical score, written by Chaplin.
Please, do not let the fact that “City Lights” is not a talking film deter you from watching it. It’s a really enjoyable movie. The American Film Institute lists it as the 11th greatest movie ever made.
Let’s end today with this anecdote about the Hollywood premiere of “City Lights” that was held at the grand opening of the Los Angeles Theatre here in downtown L.A. on Jan. 30, 1931. It’s from Chaplin’s 1964 memoir “My Autobiography”:
Meanwhile [my manager] had closed a deal in Los Angeles to open a new theatre which had just been built. As the [Albert] Einsteins were still there, they expressed a desire to go to the opening — but I do not think they realized what they had let themselves in for. On the eve of the premiere they dined at my house, then we all went downtown. The main street was packed with people for several blocks. Police cars and ambulances were attempting to plough through the crowds, which had smashed in shop windows next to the theatre. With the help of a squadron of police, we were propelled into the foyer. How I loathe first nights: the personal tension, the mixture of perfumes, musk and carbona — the effect is nauseating and nerve-racking.
The proprietor had built a beautiful theatre but, like many exhibitors in those days, he knew little about the presentation of films. The picture started. It showed the credit titles to the usual first-night applause. Then at last the first scene opened. My heart pounded. It was a comedy scene. They began to laugh! The laughter increased into roars! I had got them! All my doubts and fears began to evaporate. And I wanted to weep. For three reels they laughed. And from sheer nerves and excitement I was laughing with them!
Then a most incredible thing happened. Suddenly, in the middle of the laughter, the picture was turned off! The house lights went up and a voice over the loud-speaker announced: “Before continuing further with this wonderful comedy, we would like to take five minutes of your time to point out to you the merits of this beautiful new theatre.
[The theater was indeed opulent. It was built by an independent exhibitor, according to Curbed L.A., and here’s a picture of its lobby.
Some of the theater’s bells and whistles, according to Curbed, included “a radio broadcast room, a restaurant with soda fountain, a wood-paneled basement lounge meant to resemble an ocean liner's, a nursery, an electric indicator panel to let ushers know which seats were open, soundproof crying rooms with sound piped in for mothers, blue neon aisle lighting, and a periscope/mirror system that allowed films to be simultaneously shown in the basement lounge.]
Chaplin’s account continues:
I could not believe my ears. I went mad. I leaped up from my seat and raced up the aisle: “Where’s that stupid son of a bitch of a manager? I’ll kill him!”
The audience was with me and started stamping their feet and applauding as the idiot went on speaking about the beautiful appointments of the theatre. However, he soon stopped when the audience began booing. It took a reel before the laughter got back into its stride.
Under the circumstances I thought the picture went well. During the final scene I noticed [Albert] Einstein wiping his eyes — further evidence that scientists are incurable sentimentalists.