Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
There aren’t that many silent films I’ve seen by this point in my life. When I was a little kid, I was shown 1920s Little Rascals silent shorts; when I was starting community college, I saw “The Artist”; and when I was in film school, I was subjected to more classic silent films such as “A Trip to the Moon,” “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” and “Nosferatu.” As my appreciation for cinema history continued to grow, there were others I felt I had to check out. For instance, I had never seen a Charles Chaplin film, but I knew I had to check one out. So I came across “City Lights,” one of Chaplin’s most notorious efforts that I heard a lot about from critics and film professors. How did I react to it? Well, let me get into a little background…
Around the time this film was released, films were breaking new ground (new for back then). They were using recorded sound, bringing about the end of the “silent era” and the beginning of the “talkies.” This transition ruined many careers and changed others, but one of the biggest talents, Charles Chaplin, didn’t back down so easily. He made more silent films, using his popular, beloved character of The Tramp, the unkempt figure with a paintbrush mustache and a handy cane, to continue his art. (He would then go on to make five talkies years later, without The Tramp.) “City Lights” was his farewell to the silent era before he made a hybrid out of silence and recorded sound (with “Modern Times”) before making the transition to full sound. In the late-‘20s and early-‘30s, Chaplin never felt pressured to give up on his silent pictures and he was so stubborn that even though talkies were growing in popularity, he would still put his all into “City Lights” just to remind audiences of what he can do with his craft and what they loved to begin with. Did it pay off? Yes, it certainly did. Not only was the film a success, but it would become known as Chaplin’s significant masterpiece.
Chaplin wrote, directed, produced, and starred as The Tramp (of course) in “City Lights.” One night, he comes across a suicidal drunken millionaire (Harry Myers) and saves his life. The millionaire is grateful to The Tramp and decides to bring him home and also invite him to a fancy dinner party. But when the millionaire sobers up the following morning, he doesn’t recognize his new friend, though at night when he’s drunk again, they’re friends again. The Tramp uses his association with the millionaire to try and impress a blind, kind Flower Girl (Virginia Cherrill) from whom he bought a flower with his last cent. Now he’s able to buy all of her flowers, drive her around in the millionaire’s car, and even manage to pay for her rent and pay for an operation to cure her blindness. In between encounters with the millionaire, however, he has to raise some of that money himself, getting a job that doesn’t last long and even putting himself in a boxing match to win prize cash.
So which should I talk about first? The dramatic elements of “City Lights” or the comedic ones? Well, since it is largely a comedy, I suppose I should start with the latter. It’s brilliant; Chaplin at his best. The film is pieced together like a series of comedic vignettes framed around a conflict of interest. There’s The Tramp caught asleep on a statue before getting stuck on its sword trying to get off; then there’s his rescue of the millionaire which involves both of them going for a sudden swim; and the funniest of them all, the boxing match in which The Tramp tries everything to keep from getting pummeled by his opponent, who’s twice his size. The choreography and the physical comedy in that sequence are definitely spot-on. It’s one of those rare few times when I’ve literally laughed out loud during a movie and I drew attention to myself. (That was when I decided to think of what The Tramp would do when confronted by a confused bystander—I jerked my head, smiled nervously, and tipped my (nonexistent) hat and moved on.)
In the meantime, there’s a lot of hinted pathos in the way the millionaire often doesn’t recognize who The Tramp is unless he’s drunk. It leads to a heartbreaking scene that even after the tenth time I’ve watched this film, I can’t watch anymore. But the film is also a romance, showing sweet moments between The Tramp and the Flower Girl. And I can’t finish this review without talking about the ending. I won’t give it away here for those who don’t know how this film concludes, but I will say that it is one of the most perfect endings in the history of cinema. Words can’t describe how sweet and effective it is, and it’s also a testament to silent-film acting as Chaplin and Cherill act with very few lines and mostly their facial expressions and body language. I will confess it even got me a little teary-eyed. It’s especially heartfelt in context of the whole film and in consideration of the characterizations of The Tramp and the Flower Girl—The Tramp is a naïve innocent who no one understands and the Flower Girl is a romantic whose perception of him only changes slightly when she sees him for who he is; she’s the only one who doesn’t judge him by his appearance.
Since I saw “City Lights,” I watched a few more Chaplin films, including “The Circus,” The Gold Rush,” and his most infamous talkie, “The Great Dictator.” Those films are good in their own way, but “City Lights” was the one that truly left an impression on me (and it still does, after at least ten viewings). There’s a great mix of humor and heart that can’t be matched or beaten. It’s a wonderful film that I’m sure I’ll treasure forever.
NOTE: I’m embarrassed to say that as of now, I still haven’t seen any of Buster Keaton’s films, but I thought I’d put that out there.