To give you an idea of how truly amazing Charles Chaplin's City Lights is, Orson Welles--the man who made Citizen Kane--considered it his favorite movie.
The great cinematic legend, Chaplin is someone I would personally put on my very short list of true comic geniuses of the 20th century, along with Groucho Marx, Peter Sellers and Woody Allen. This film is the perfect example of why I put him at that level. For me, a true comic genius, one who steps out from the pack of those who are merely very funny, is someone who transcends pure comedy, someone who does something more with his work, who adds a level of almost intangible profundity to what he does, so that he has the power to do more than merely make you laugh.
There's no question Charlie Chaplin did this throughout his incredible career, and for my money, there is no film of his, feature or short, which illustrates that as well as City Lights. The movie represents a powerful evolution in his famous "Little Tramp" character, and an extremely daring balance of comedy and pathos/drama, even moreso than previous efforts like The Kid, another great one.
This is a movie that took so many chances, and they all paid off in ways that few chances in the history of cinema ever have. For one thing, Chaplin made it at the beginning of the 1930s, when the motion picture industry had already converted completely to sound. And yet he insisted on making it a silent film. In his eyes, it was integral to way the film would work.
And it's a good thing Chaplin stuck to his guns. Although the film does have a recorded musical soundtrack, it is indeed silent, thus the movie's original subtitle, "A Comedy Romance in Pantomime". There's something innately powerful about the wordless emotions put forth on the screen under the masterful hand of Chaplin: director, writer and star. He'd been doing it for years by this point, but City Lights is the ultimate distillation of his art.
Chaplin, as the Tramp, falls in love with a blind flower girl, who, because she cannot see, believes he is a wealthy businessman with the ability to help her pay for crucial eye surgery to restore her vision; determined to keep her love, the Tramp does whatever it takes to raise the money needed. On paper, it is melodramatic mush, but in the hands of Chaplin it becomes a genuinely remarkable filmgoing experience.
And while there is much earnest sentiment flying around, Chaplin manages to perfectly blend the comedy which initially put him on the map in the first place. Via his friendship with a drunken millionaire, and his many intrepid attempts at making money, Chaplin is able to interject hilariously funny material, yet never loses sight of the genuine feeling at the heart of the story. Among these comedy vignettes, by the way, is the classic prize fight routine, with the Tramp trying his hand at boxing.
There are few filmmakers who were ever able to seamlessly blend comedy and drama like Chaplin, and he never did it better than here. Talk about a filmmaker at the height of his powers. And the sentiment, the heart of the piece, is so pure, so true, and so moving, that it actually manages to infuse the comedy with an almost indescribable flavor of emotion, resulting in that very rare viewer response of combined melancholy and amusement that so few films ever succeed in eliciting.
Perhaps the finest moment in the history of Chaplin's Tramp character may be the closing moment of this film. Some have called it the most memorable film ending ever, and it's hard to dispute that point. It certainly is one of the most serene moments in cinematic history--the flower girl, post-surgery, her sight restored, seeks to meet her benefactor face-to-face for the first time, to thank him. And of course, upon seeing him as the Tramp instead of the wealthy businessman she thought he was, she nevertheless accepts him wholly and completely.
Again, what on paper would seem maudlin and trite is pulled off so perfectly by Chaplin as to be a thing of wonder. Supposedly Chaplin filmed his scenes with Virginia Cherrill, the actress who played the blind girl, literally hundreds of times trying to land the perfect take. And that insistence on perfection shows through in the finished product. Watching that look of unequalled relief, adoration and pride on the Tramp's face, a flower clasped nervously in hand, how else can one think any different?
NEXT UP: The Public Enemy (1931)