City Lights along with The Gold Rush, both by Chaplin, are easily two of the greatest screen comedies ever made. Chaplin invested so much emotional depth in his Little Tramp that the comedy arose from that character organically, like a flower, always natural, always earned, always stemming from the innermost yearnings of character and of how he relates to the situation at hand. And, while I’m on it, here it is: Chaplin was easily the greatest actor of silent cinema, hands down, no competition. He innate genius for characterization and for being emotionally present in every second of every frame gives any of our more “modern” actors a run for their money. Also, Chaplin is, without doubt, the most influential comedian in cinema history: You can see traces of his influence, most obviously, in Jerry Lewis and all the way to Jim Carrey, Michael Richards’ Kramer, and, even, in Matt Groening’s Homer Simpson. Chaplin was our first master, the comedian-filmmaker who demonstrated how to negotiate that delicate tightrope between comedy and sentiment to monumental effect.
In the past several decades, Chaplin’s reputation has been overshadowed by a re-awakening of Keaton appreciation. Keaton was awe-inspiring at setting up and executing comic set pieces. But I’ve never felt as emotionally connected to his characters as I do to Chaplin’s. The Tramp makes a bead for the soul, and, in his travails, you’re with him every step of the way. Chaplin was not primarily a filmmaker the way Keaton was–Keaton hooks us in with clever design and editing rhythms (but this can become wearisome, and it admittedly takes some stamina for me to make it through a Keaton movie). In contrast, Chaplin was a sentimental storyteller with a special, maybe unequaled, genius for character development. It’s where the germ of his comedy was cultured.
City Lights, with marvelous simplicity and narrative clarity, depicts a romance between the Tramp and a blind flower girl. The Tramp tries to keep her from getting evicted and then to raise money for a surgery that will restore her eyesight. His accidental catalyst is his bumbling, on-again, off-again friendship with a drunken millionaire, who the Tramp saves from suicide. Every scene of the movie is gorgeous, often hilarious (especially the scenes in the boxing hall where the Tramp bumbles and cajoles his way through a nasty face-off with the local brute). City Lights is a great gift to all of us by a filmmaker at a latter-day peak of his genius. To see anything by Chaplin is to nourish the soul. Chaplin is good for the world.
Directed by: Charles Chaplin
Written by: Charles Chaplin
Cast: Charles Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Harry Myers, Charles Chaplin, Al Ernest Garcia