Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Movie Myopia

This is a bit of an odd topic, but yesterday’s post on Chaplin’s “City Lights” calls to mind another interesting circumstance of that film. Virginia Cherrill, who plays the blind girl opposite Chaplin, was nearsighted in real life. This is exactly why she got the job.

Author Jeffrey Vance in his “Chaplin - Genius of the Cinema” (Harry N. Abrams, Inc.), recounts the situation and Chaplin’s difficulties on this film. Miss Cherrill had never acted before. It seems Mr. Chaplin had seen her at a public event and was struck by her beauty. He wanted her to test for his upcoming film. One of her qualities that endeared him and that first attracted him was her expression of some sort of wistful searching in her eyes.

Miss Cherrill was nearsighted, and in an interview in later years confessed that she did not like to wear her glasses in public. This was the era of Dorothy Parker’s “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.”

Chaplin felt convinced that her expression, simply borne of nearsightedness, would perfectly convey not only the gentle spirit of the Blind Girl, but illustrate her physical blindness as well. He wanted to show her as blind without exaggerating her appearance, or, as Chaplin noted in his autobiography, “without being offensive.”

It is remarkable that a man of such perfectionist tendencies would literally pick from nowhere a woman with no acting experience for such an important role in his film. As it is, Mr. Chaplin became dissatisfied with her acting abilities. This film, in the scene where they first meet and she says, “Flower, sir?” hoping he will buy one from her, holds the Guinness Book of World Records for most takes for a single scene in any film. They shot 342 takes. Mr. Chaplin was not happy with her. He particularly did not like the way she handed the flower to him. Maybe she couldn’t see him.

This circumstance of nearsightedness inducing a dreamy expression could perhaps also extend to the wonderful actress Teresa Wright, whose searching glance over the faces of her fellow actors in some of her most tender scenes, something of a trademark with her, is possibly due to her being nearsighted in real life. Off the set, she wore glasses.

Contact lenses were new in the 1930s, and the only use they had in Hollywood at that time was probably by Lon Chaney, Sr., who used them to show disfigurement and blindness in his characters. They were not used to see better. In fact, they ruined his vision.

The most celebrated movie myopic is likely Mr. Magoo, whose world was nevertheless colorful for being vague. Much the same way Virginia Cherrill’s nearsightedness made her seem fey, wistful, and blind, it was all a blurry illusion.

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