As one of the highest accomplishments of Chaplin’s career, City Lights remains a poignant reminder of the power of romance, silence, and misconceptions. Working as his own producer and distributor as part owner of United Artists, Chaplin was able to bring City Lights out as a silent picture even though talkies were already all the rage. Not an entirely silent piece, Chaplin’s movie includes portions of sound including some rather hilarious garbled sounds that mock voice patterns.
Placing City Lights in the context of its release in the Great Depression gives the motion picture even more power. Here is a movie that skewers the concept of the wealthy, with the drunken millionaire and the garbled speech of politicians serving as amusing contempt of what Chaplin thought of film dialogue and upper class nonsense. But even in our modern context, Chaplin’s ideas translate wonderfully and City Lights remains a magical film worth seeing several times.
The movie centres around Chaplin’s Tramp character, an individual built not on speaking like the characters of Buster Keaton but rather a character built on action. Indeed, the Tramp could be considered more of a mime with the use of body language substituting for the use of dialogue. His actions and facial expressions do far more than most modern performers and characters could ever wish to do with hours of monologue.
City Lights furthers the Tramp character, whose search for refuge continues to be one of his major motivations. The opening sequence finds him asleep on statues waiting to be dedicated. When the protective sheet is removed, there he is and a sequence of glorious physical comedy commences with Tramp attempting to politely make an exit. And so it is with Chaplin’s familiar character: he is an outsider, homeless and broke without a place to go.
The Tramp eventually talks a drunken millionaire (Harry Myers) out of suicide. The millionaire recognizes the Tramp as a good friend when he is under the influence, but does not recognize him and considers him street trash when he is sober. This makes for some interesting situations, to say the least. There is also a flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) and she is blind. She is the object of the Tramp’s affections and she returns the affection, under the impression that he is a millionaire thanks to a suit Tramp borrowed from his drunken millionaire pal.
This, of course, leads to many interesting situations and the Tramp desperately wants to help the blind girl. She is behind on her rent, so he begins to work a series of small jobs to help scrape together enough money. He works as a street sweeper and even enters a boxing contest. Fortuitously, the inebriated millionaire shows up at just the right moment and offers the Tramp enough money to help the girl. Unluckily, the millionaire sobers up and believes himself to have been robbed by the homeless bugger. And so it goes.
The beauty of City Lights lies not just in this tortuous tale of comic misfortune but in the acts of self-sacrifice that the Tramp makes for a girl that cannot see him and does not know what his reality is. When the Tramp is eventually released from prison, he comes upon the blind girl who can now see thanks to the money the Tramp was able to give her. The moment of realization, of recognition, is one of the most powerful and poignant moments in film history.
Whether for great comedic sequences, such as the famed prize fighting segment or the Tramp’s attempts to save the millionaire from drowning, or for moments of sheer emotional poetry, it’s hard to top City Lights. There are even some subtler coarse moments, such as when the Tramp works as a street sweeper and ducks some horses only to encounter a parade of elephants. The joke is clear and so is Chaplin’s gift. It’s a shame that the silent films of Chaplin and other great performers of his era are so rarely shown and so rarely seen by those in the younger generation. Today’s modern comics owe a lot to Chaplin and, indeed, so does today’s modern film in general.