“Tomorrow the birds will sing.”
The silent film was on decline in 1931 as studios gave way to the era of talkies. These new movies were far more popular than the silent film because, well, they weren’t silent. However, one man refused to give up the silent film. A man who built his entire career around the craft of the moving picture: Charlie Chaplin. One of the most prominent actors of the early 20th century, Chaplin was comedic master who knew physical comedy inside and out. He saw the silent film to be a purer form of art, and he continued to perfect it for years after sound had become commonplace in cinema. Often hailed as his greatest work, City Lights is a film that demonstrates how moving and artistically fulfilling these silent films can be. Endlessly funny but with a surprising amount of heart, it’s Chaplin at his finest, and it holds up as an inspiring piece of entertainment even today.
City Lights juggles two major plot points as Chaplin returns to his classic comic character, The Tramp. Wandering the streets, penniless and alone, Chaplin comes across a beautiful young woman (Virginia Cherrill) selling flowers. He quickly falls in love with her but soon discovers (rather comically) that she is blind and also (rather uncomically) that she is poor, facing the loss of her home due to overwhelming debt. This is where the other plot comes in. Chaplin meets a drunk millionaire (Harry Myers) late at night who is attempting suicide. Chaplin manages to save the man’s life, and for doing so, the man is eternally grateful. The only issue is that the millionaire can only seem to remember Chaplin when he is drunk, leading to a hilarious sequence of on-again off-again friendship between the two. Through the course of the movie, Chaplin attempts to maintain his relationship with both the young woman and the millionaire, perhaps using his wealthy connection to help get the woman out of her financial predicament.
Any doubts over whether this film holds up today are extinguished from the opening scene. As the town anxiously gathers for the unveiling of a new statue, only to find that Chaplin has been sleeping on the statue beneath the tarp, we get a hilarious physical routine that sets the tone for a fun film. Chaplin brings his unwavering commitment to strong physical comedy. Every movement he makes is specific and focused, as if he has calculated some formula for maximum funny. His facial expressions, his physical blunders, it’s all so precise with perfect timing. While comedic films today put their trust in shock humor or irreverent depictions of irony, Chaplin proves that the right timing and commitment to a joke goes a long way. It’s a style of comedy we don’t see much of today, but it could certainly be due for a resurgence.
I was also surprised by how moving and personal City Lights can be. The romantic side of the plot is charming and heartfelt in every occurrence. The Tramp is such a lowly, bumbling figure that it becomes easy to root for him. What we love about clowns like Chaplin is that they never give up. Despite all the anger and misfortune that comes their way, they keep chasing after their desires, brimming with optimism. In this case, Chaplin’s desire is the love of a simple flower merchant. More than this, though, we see that he wants her to be happy. The end of the film demonstrates this humble devotion, as Chaplin is willing to end up in prison to make this woman’s life better. The final scene features some powerful, nuanced acting in which the couple finally reunites in a surprising string of events which is crafted to perfection to bring smiles to the audience.
The real takeaway from a film like City Lights is the precision and commitment to detail that Chaplin maintains. He was known to be a perfectionist, holding full creative control over his films and really taking his time to get them to the point he envisioned. The routines of physical comedy are no less than we’ve come to expect from a comedic visionary such as Chaplin, but the story itself is so personal and alluring that we come to love the main character, not just as a clown but as a real person. For this reason, it’s a fine piece of classic cinema that unquestionably stands the test of time.
Films Left to Watch: 925