Conceived as a “comedy romance in pantomime”, Chaplin’s City Lights is at once filled with humour, social commentary, and romance, all with a poignancy that helps transcend its heartrending melodrama. At the time of filming, audiences were coming around to talkies with the advent of sound. However, Chaplin gambled, against all advise, and refused to introduce synchronized sound into the film, leaving The Little Tramp, his classic and most famous character, silent. The film begins with the Tramp being instantly smitten with a blind flower girl, but with no money, his infatuation with the woman (Virginia Cherrill) can only be realized from afar. After rescuing an eccentric and inebriated millionaire (Harry Myers) from committing suicide, the two strike up an unlikely friendship that allows the Tramp to get involved with several high-class predicaments, such as a drunkenly night out on the town. This action is paralleled with his desire to get the money needed to help the blind woman and her grandmother, forcing him to take odd jobs throughout the city, including a fixed-boxing match against a formidable opponent. Of course, all of the action is staged with impeccable timing and precision, and is usually captured in just one shot. It’s impossible not to be in awe of Chaplin’s graceful performance. It’s genuinely funny, filled with enough eccentricities to always keep it interesting, and honestly balanced between emotional nuance and outright slapstick. The romance between the Tramp and the blind flower girl, though, is where the film really delights. Beautifully acted, it’s a remarkable example of cinema’s powerful emotional effect. This all culminates in a terrific ending that movingly encapsulates the pathos, humour and insecurities of all involved. I’m not saying anything most people aren’t aware of, but Chaplin’s City Lights is an endearing classic.
© Cinephile Magazine, 2006