I have previously in various places mentioned Charlie Chaplin’s movies and what I think of them. I believe I have commented that “Modern Times” was my favorite of his movies. Correct that. From now on it is “City Lights”. Yes, “Modern Times” have the fantastic scene with the feeding machine and a number of other fantastic gags, but it is not a complete movie the way “City Lights” is. As a comedy it works all the way through. It is consistently funny and move from one comedic setup to the next in a rapid pace, but without losing track of the story or the poignancy of the love story the film revolves around. It is in every meaning of the word a masterpiece.
Yesterday I had to go to town and brought my little portable DVD player with me in the bus. I must have caused many glances as I laughed my way through “City Lights”. I was having a blast. I noticed that in many ways Chaplin acts and reacts like my 2½ year old son and I figured that he might like the movie as well and true enough, when I got home and put it on the big screen he loved it. Well, it passed the big test.
The story is fairly basic, but becomes rather convoluted because of the erratic ways of the little tramp and especially his eccentric millionaire friend (Harry Myers). Chaplin falls in love with a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) who thinks he is rich and not the tramp he really is. Because of his infatuation he gives her all he can afford and goes to great length to help her when she needs it. The ability to help her comes from the eccentric millionaire whom Chaplin saves from committing suicide (almost killing Chaplin in the process) making him his new best friend. At least when he is drunk, because as he sobers up he completely forgets about the tramp. Fortunately the millionaire is a thirsty, despairing man who frequently drowns his sorrows so the tramp is invited in and kicked out and invited in again in rapid order. When they are friends Chaplin has the ability to help the girl, when they are not he is left to his own pitiful abilities. This comes to a head when the girl and her grandmother are about to be evicted unless they pay outstanding rent and at the same time a doctor is in town who can cure blindness. Chaplin really needs money and when his attempt at a boxing career fails he fortunately becomes friends again with the drunkard and gets sufficient money to save the girl, only to risk losing them again when burglars assail the millionaire causing him to sober up while Chaplin is caught red handed with 1000$ in his pocket. Chaplin escapes and saves the girl, but is then arrested and put away for a while. When he is back the girl can see again and has made herself a successful flower shop. The question is, will she recognize and love the tramp now she can see that he is not a rich man?
That ending is so elegantly made with such tenderness that it almost hurts. I have to say that it is one of the most perfect end scenes I ever saw, so raw and bittersweet, full of hope but unresolved. The question is readable in Chaplin’s face as she answers “Yes, I can see now”. So ambiguous, but in a good way.
And all the way through I did not even mention the comedic elements. To do that would exhaust me, there are just so many. The boxing match is rightly so a classic. That may be the funniest boxing match ever. But I also love the party at the restaurant where we get slapstick at full throttle as Chaplin breaks every convention of proper behavior. Even saving the drunkard ends in comedy as the drunkard and the tramps simply cannot stay on the dock, but keep pushing each other into the water. The opening scene itself is high comedy as the high and mighty of the city are gathered at the revelation of the new town monument, only to find the tramp sleeping in the arms of the statue. A kazoo is elegantly used to tell how pointless their speeches are and their aghast expressions to find the tramp defiling their monument is priceless.
Like the recent movie “The Artist” Chaplin insisted on making silent movies at a time when the rest of the world had already changed to talking movies. Chaplin was convinced that the tramp was a silent character and he was right. Because of the tramp character he got away with it and created the best silent comedy ever made. I do not know if his contemporaries appreciated that, but I sure do. I can see this movie again and again and will many times over the coming years.