City Lights

Dir: Charlie Chaplin, 1931. Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Cherill, Florence Lee, Harry Myers. Silent Films.
City Lights

Just as sound film was putting an end to Hollywood’s silent era, the opening scene of City Lights has two people speaking in synched gibberish (a cross between the adults of the Peanuts cartoons and a jacked-up kazoo) - this was Charlie Chaplin’s way of thumbing his nose at the new invention. Sound horrified Chaplin, and with good reason as it was already putting an end to the career of many silent stars. Chaplin knew giving a voice or a language or worse his strong British accent to his internationally beloved Little Tramp character could kill it. The Tramp doesn’t speak, nor does anyone else; instead Chaplin composed a massive score that went with the film.

City Lights opens with a title card, calling itself a "comedy romance in pantomime." It’s also a fable about the heartlessness of urban life, almost a gentle version of Fritz Lang’s much darker Metropolis. Chaplin’s Tramp may be at his saddest and most pathetic. As the Great Depression rages the homeless Tramp searches for compassion in his trademark oversized shoes, ill fitting suit, bowler hat, and Hitler mustache. Like Frankenstein’s Monster and that little girl, The Tramp makes a connection with a beautiful blind flower girl, played movingly by Virginia Cherill in her first film; she would be equally remembered briefly as a real-life Mrs. Cary Grant. She mistakes The Tramp for a rich man and he finds out she and her kindly Grandmother (Florence Lee) are going to be evicted from their hovel. The Tramp takes on a series of humiliating jobs, including street sweeper and prizefighter, to try and help the two women. He also befriends a drunken Millionaire (Harry Myers) who invites The Tramp into his home at night while under the influence, but the next day, once sober, kicks him out. Eventually he convinces The Millionaire to pay for an operation to give The Blind Girl sight. Later The Tramp is mistaken as a robber who robbed The Millionaire and is sent off to prison.

By the end The Blind Girl can see, and she and her Grandmother own a flower shop, but she waits every day for the rich man who helped her to return. The Tramp gets out of prison and is at his lowest and most derelict. And then… one of the great film endings in movie history. The Tramp happens upon her, at first she takes pity on the sad little scamp, but then touching his hand she realizes it’s him. She asks “was it you” (who paid for her operation)? Hiding behind a flower pedal he says “yes." Black out. As moving an ending as there ever has been. It’s short and sweet with no drawn out conclusion. We don’t even know if it will become a happy story for The Tramp, but alas that's life in the big, cold city.

City Lights is arguably Chaplin’s masterpiece among a number of great films. Though his countless shorts are considered "important," it’s his handful of Little Tramp feature films that make him the great filmmaker he is still considered today. The Kid, The Gold Rush, and The Circus are all still musts. But City Lights really took his ballet-like slapstick to a new level. All of his films have a great deal of heart (some would argue too much pathos), and though The Kid has moments that can bring the coldest viewer to tears, City Lights is in some ways more subtle. His follow-up, another film recognized as a true masterpiece, Modern Times, would be his last “silent,” though again it would have the synched score and sound effects. Modern Times would go even further in an almost “socialist” direction, sympathizing with the unfair treatment of workers and bringing into question the values of capitalism. Views that were in vogue during the depression, but later as the country moved into a more aggressively patriotic and right wing direction, Chaplin’s humanistic politics would get him into trouble and eventually run him out of the country (aided by lack of paying taxes and his numerous paternity lawsuits).

Like music fans who find it helpful to define themselves as either in the camp of The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, Chaplin and Buster Keaton have become rivals in the eyes of modern day cinephiles. Of course in their day Chaplin was already a legend while Keaton’s stature has been growing over the decades. Some now accuse Chaplin’s films of being overly sentimental, while Keaton’s mad stunts and exciting camera set-ups are applauded. I say, why divide them? They can both be appreciated for what they did and don’t let anyone try to convince you that Keaton was a better physical comedian. They were both amazing and while Keaton’s daringness can be stunning, Chaplin’s almost ballet like movement and impeccable timing has never been duplicated (and Chaplin was also quite the outrageous stuntman as well). City Lights may hit you over the head a little bit, but it’s still an amazing monument to the times and to both Chaplin’s massive genius and his massive heart. You may disagree with the great Orson Welles when he proclaimed that City Lights is the greatest movie ever made, but he is still right when he said that there has never been a talent as unique as Chaplin both in front and behind the camera. And there never will be.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
May 11, 2011 3:32pm
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