Charles Chaplin, has there ever been an artist that was as contentious as him during their time? Just as when “the Talkies” were becoming trendy in Hollywood this comedian decides to make yet another silent movie, talk about not giving a damn. City Lights is a silent romantic comedy about a little tramp and a blind flower girl who thinks he is a millionaire. Hilarity ensues as usual but like many of Chaplin’s films City Lights will leave one blindsided by the shocking amount of depth and humanity he brings to the screen and without pretension. Chaplin wanted to prove that his silent comedies still had merit in the new Sound Era and resulted in a masterpiece that transcends both his genre and medium.
So after nearly 85 years of time to take this film out of context, is City Lights still funny? Yes. Chaplin is a brilliant satirist because he was never alienating. Many of the characters in the film are a subtle representation of life when in the economy began to crash. His signature Little Tramp character always represented a good 99% percent of world, making him instantly relatable, never mind that his warm presence and abilities as a comedian. Though of course he is a brilliant comedian, he may lack the physical prowess of Buster Keaton but his timing is bulletproof. After thirty years of acting prior to this film, mostly as the Little Tramp, Chaplin looks like he invented pantomime with the way he gracefully nails every single gag.
However, a funny thing about City Lights is that the satire itself is not at the forefront of the plot. Almost every film Chaplin has made outside of City Light, like The Kid, The Great Dictator and Modern Times, were about topical issues like war and poverty; in contrast, this film is a comedic love story that is as realistic as a fairy tale, but it is a tender one. City Lights is about the Little Tramp and his romantic yearning for connection, even if it means living up to a lie about his own wealth. He is dishonest yet always has good intentions, like getting a job scooping feces to help pay for the Blind Girl’s rent, but still dresses posh whenever he meets her. Ultimately, he is a lovable mad man, a bum who thinks he is a Victorian romantic, yet his selflessness proves to be his greatest trait by the end.
Personally, there are very few films that make me cry, let alone profusely, this @#$%ing film made me break down, all because of chemistry between the Little Tramp and the Blind Girl (played by Virginia Cherrill). Chaplin and Cherrill play like they were destined for each other as they mingle together over things like flowers and his “wealth” because they visibly act with a level of intimacy would be drowned out by dialogue. This intimacy is encapsulated by the ending, which relies solely on the performances of the two leads and very few close ups to create one of the purest portrayals of love ever on film. It is a delicate and subtle moment that is both intensely sad and heartwarming, something that less than a dozen or so films in the last century managed to duplicate.
Regardless of his intentions, modest or otherwise, City Lights is Chaplin’s ultimate artistic statement. The film defied not only the norms of an increasingly noisy Hollywood but also the upper class that refused to believe that Black Tuesday ever happened. He also uses this defiance to redefine himself as both a comedian and storyteller by revolving the plot around his Little Tramp as human character and not a symbol. In hindsight, the theme of love in the lower class is so universal and is so well executed that the history behind City Lights, the film is a masterpiece.
(City Lights is available in a DVD/Blu-ray combo package by the Criterion Collection as well as Amazon Instant Video)