My review of City Lights, and my rating above all else, might come off as trite when brought together. City Lights is an incredibly endearing film and allegory for humanity. Charlie Chaplin’s skill as a director and comedian are unparalleled and rightfully deserve a place in film history. With that being said, City Lights stands, for me, as a representation of the best of what film can achieve, an important artifact in the history of American cinema.
Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp becomes the kind benefactor to a Blind Girl (Virginia Cherrill) who assumes he’s a millionaire, and the guardian angel to a millionaire (Harry Myers) whose the Tramp’s best friend…when he’s drunk.
Chaplin’s City Lights is “a comedy romance in pantomime” and a spit in the face of Hollywood’s embrace of talking pictures, coming out three years after the acceptance of talkies with studios already dumping silent films entirely. Because Chaplin had a massive ego – not a bad thing – he vowed to avoid talkies for as long as he could, ultimately starring, directing, and composing this film (yet being billed last). Chaplin’s disdain for the new medium is evident from the film’s first minutes where the snooty civic committee’s dialogue is a cacophony of chirps, simultaneously annoying the audience and reminding them of how simple words are to write, but can have zero meaning behind them.
This is my second time watching The Tramp, and since I watched Modern Times once in high school I’m considering this a first-time romp. The Tramp is an everyman, a vagrant who, as much as he desperately tries to blend in, never its in anywhere and thus sticks out like a sore thumb. He attempts a show of his patriotism by saluting, yet is stuck with a sword up his back because of the statue he’s perched on. While attending a fancy dinner party he ends up swallowing a party whistle – in The Tramp’s world, choking hazards are non-existent – and ends up whistling during the host’s speech. Yet for all his own personal foibles, The Tramp is an endearing testament to the resilience of the human spirit.
City Lights’ 87-minutes revolve around The Tramp acting as an angel to a suicidal millionaire and savior to the Blind Girl, and yet there’s nothing ethereal or otherworldly about Chaplin’s character. The Tramp has human aspirations, and a bit of selfish intent, in his desire for wealth. He understands an influx of cash solves the Blind Girl’s problems but also realizes the level of respect he gains from her as a result. He isn’t the man who gets water dumped on because no one, even her, can’t see he’s there. The iconic ending of the film, where both The Tramp and the Blind Girl “see” each other, reminds the audience it is through individuals that others feel valued and loved. It also presents an examination between the haves and the have-nots.
The Tramp is a gracious man, never asking for anything in return for the help he bestows on the millionaire or the Blind Girl. Based on his tattered clothes and lack of employment, we realize he’s less than wealthy, but his optimism shows he has all the materials a person needs for happiness. But the wealthy, unknowingly, see him as a threat, from the millionaire himself who only recalls The Tramp is his friend when inebriated, to the millionaire’s butler who blames The Tramp for stealing. Both characters see Chaplin’s character as the reason for society’s downfall, when it’s the millionaire himself who seduces The Tramp down the primrose path of drunkenness.
For all of Chaplin’s love of pantomime there’s some snarky humor; when the millionaire fires a gun Chaplin immediately assumes the position….sticking his rump in the air. Later on, when The Tramp takes a job in order to give the Blind Girl money, he’s tasked with shoveling the manure of live animals – including an elephant! If anyone could tell us that life can be a pile of….well, you know, it’s Chaplin.
My ratings system has always been a combination of personal preference and filmic quality. With City Lights, I can’t say I’d watch this on a whim. I understand and appreciate it for its historical merit more than anything. It’s a Classic Film, and Chaplin deserves his spot in the pantheon of comics. City Lights is an inspiring exploration of the human condition and our ability to find connection in the most unlikely places. Chaplin is gregarious and bold.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.