In 1931, talkies had gone from the newest fad to mainstream. Silent films were quickly becoming too old fashioned. Nonetheless, Charlie Chaplin wrote, directed and starred in the silent City Lights. Surprisingly, it was one of Chaplin’s most successful films, financially and critically. Some hail it as his greatest work and even one of the best silent films. It was also Chaplin’s final silent film. What a shame that the Academy did not see it fit for any Oscar nominations.
The film works like a perfect and sweet romantic comedy. Chaplin portrays his famous Tramp, a poor, wandering, clumsy guy with a big heart. We watch him make two friends in the city. One is an eccentric millionaire (Harry Myers), that the Tramp saves from a drunken suicide attempt. After that, he takes the Tramp on the town, living it up, even letting him drive his car. The only problem is that once the millionaire is sober, he has no recollection of the Tramp and throws him back into the street. It’s a very on and off again relationship. The second friend is a blind girl (Virginia Cherrill) who sells flowers. Through a series of coincidences, misinterpretations, and a ride in the millionaire’s car, she believes her new friend to be very wealthy. When the little Tramp realizes this girl is in a financial crisis, and that her blindness can be cured, he works hard to raise the money to help her. After all, he has to keep up the idea that he’s rich if he wants any shot at romance, right?
I dare anyone to watch a Charlie Chaplin film and not laugh. Some of the gags in City Lights had me in stitches. The Tramp’s opening scene is a great one. Hundreds have turned out for a ceremony for a new statue. As the sheet is lifted, revealing the new monument, the Tramp is curled up sleeping in the lap of the seated figure. How wonderfully cute, innocent and hilarious! And in his attempt to get off the statue, he gets his pants caught on the sword of another figure. The moment gets more awkward when the national anthem plays, and out of respect, he covers his heart and stands still, his pants still hung up on the sword. The slapstick style comedy is only slightly physical, good hearted and perfect. The scene just before the boxing match is another that had me rolling.
Though this is a silent film, Chaplin incorporates a few talkie techniques. When city officials are commemorating the new statue, they talk! Only they sound like the off-camera adults in Charlie Brown cartoons. What you hear there is actually the voice of Charlie Chaplin, the first ever released on film. Later, in a scene I found particularly comical, the Tramp accidentally swallows a whistle. What’s worse, he gets the hiccups and disturbs a singing performance at a swanky party. Before talkies, there would probably only be a certain noise or note from the orchestra to indicate the whistle, but instead the noise of a whistle being blown is used. Perhaps this scene was an inspiration for the nightmare scene in The Artist. I do see quite a few similarities, even the use of dogs.
While I still have my share of Chaplin movies and silent films to see, I believe that City Lights is one of Chaplin’s most enjoyable achievements. What he embodies as the Tramp is a simple goodness that we all should aspire to, and that is evident in the sweetest way in this film. Whether you love silent film or think it’s too old fashioned, everyone should see City Lights.
“Tomorrow the birds will sing.”