In this, its 85th year, City Lights reminds us why Chaplin was once the most famous man on Earth, and why his genius, though forgotten by some, will live on in his pictures.
City Lights is one of the all-time great silent films, and one of the most powerful cinematic experiences. It is a movie about love, but is also about two good-hearted people finding each other across the hustle and bustle of a booming city, and coming to terms not just with who the other person is, but with who they are as emotional companions.
One of them is blind, which presents a very immediate obstacle. The other is The Tramp, at one time the most recognisable character in the world, and the creation that shoved Charles Chaplin into the superstardom stratosphere.
Most moviegoers now remember Chaplin for The Tramp, and incorrectly exchange one for the other, in much the same way that Adam West will forever be tied to Batman. But Chaplin couldn’t have been more different from his creation. One overflowed with meek chivalry and a sweet sense of the world. The other stood atop the world and refused to relinquish control.
It has been routinely documented that Chaplin insisted City Lights remain a silent feature, despite entering production well into the era of cinematic sound. Chaplin was highly dismissive of the talkies, informing a reporter once that he’d “give the talkies three years, that’s all”. But more to the point was his affection for The Tramp, which is a character that was born and bred to die with silent movies. Unlike anyone designed by Griffith, Murnau, or especially Keaton, The Tramp could have functioned normally in a real silent world, because he communicated exclusively with his body. Perhaps this is the reason he connected so well with his audience, and why his persona flowed through the generations and descended upon ours as a mythical comedic figure.
City Lights is The Tramp’s platform, but it’s also a showcase for Chaplin’s unique socio-political sensibility. It is a triumphant meeting of the many facets of everyday life; it is humorous, moving, melodramatic, filled with empathy and pathos, agile, comforting. More so than The Kid (1921), which was mostly sentimental, or The Gold Rush (1925), which was mostly comedic, or Modern Times (1936), which was mostly satirical, City Lights marries all the switches of everyday life into the circuitry of a movie. So it may be in black-and-white, contain no sound, and look old, but its simple, endearing story survives the ages.
It is also, quite plainly, a very well-acted film. Chaplin, of course, was a master of his mannerisms before he even knew how to crawl, but Virginia Cherrill, who plays the blind girl, brings a softness of touch, and Harry Myers, as the drunken millionaire, is bombastic in a way as to be audaciously entertaining. All the right notes are met. And the movie’s famous closing scene, which is a subtle passage of genius on Chaplin’s part, plays not for big, dramatic closure, but for the humanness within. Had Chaplin opted for a more swelling finale, the entire film would’ve seemed cheap and inferior.
City Lights was not easily made. Its screenplay was under construction for well over a year (Chaplin’s mother Hannah died in 1928, prompting an unprecedented hiatus in production) and Chaplin fired (and later re-hired) Cherrill midway through shooting because she complained of being bored, and took regular vacations to the hair dressers.
The result, though, is brilliant and devoid of such scandal. The average moviegoer today will not see a movie like City Lights, mostly because he or she has probably never heard of it. Charlie Chaplin? Yes. But ask them to name one of his movies. You’d be encircled by blank stares. Movies like City Lights have to be sought and discovered, and only a select few are willing to do that today. Chaplin’s movies once spanned the globe and enthralled millions. Now they are reclusive, almost shy, living with other silent films that cannot find a place in this modern jungle. I recommend, of course, that you see it, especially if it be your very first Chaplin picture. You get the immediate feel for The Tramp, his humanity, his comedy, and you get the broader sense of Chaplin’s immaculate writing. You can then branch off to The Kid and The Great Dictator (1940).
Images courtesy of Warner Bros / Roadshow Films