The genius of City Lights lies not in clever storytelling or intricate plot lines, but in characterisation, and the genuinely pure nature of The Tramp. He is, by all accounts, a good man. Completely honest, never assuming. He exists in a world that’s built on people judging other people, but when it comes to people that he’s met, he judges no one. This, above all else — his bowler hat, moustache, walk, cane, flappy shoes, and dusty suit — is what makes him enduring.
He is a heroic character, not in the Han Solo sense, but he makes others feel good about themselves. He encounters a millionaire (Harry Myers) trying to commit suicide, and after he saves his life, the two become best friends. But there’s a catch: The millionaire only recognises The Tramp when he’s drunk. When he’s sober, he wants nothing to do with him. This sets up some fabulous scenes in which The Tramp tries again and again to enter the millionaire’s house. After a rowdy party one night, he wakes up in the millionaire’s bed — with the millionaire in it. It is a friendship that’s based on frivolous behaviour and spending, and alcohol. Nothing in it can be believed or trusted.
He also meets a poor blind girl (Virginia Cherrill), who sells flowers by the road. I can’t say that he falls in love with her, but he certainly takes a liking to her. And she to him, even though she’s under the impression that he’s a rich gentleman, with a grand car. How on Earth could she think this? In one of his stupors, the millionaire gives his Rolls-Royce to The Tramp, as a gesture of good faith. The Tramp encounters the girl walking past the millionaire’s house, picks her up, and sends her home in the Rolls. He walks her up to her apartment and kisses her on the hand. If anything, he is a cultured man. And she is smitten.
This relationship with the girl is where the movie’s core is. It drives the story forward, and becomes the reason for many of The Tramp’s dealings. His friendship with the millionaire is there to provide contrast, yes, but because the friendship is so unstable, it can’t possibly be the movie’s foundation. No, I suspect it is there to make us laugh, and to make us remember that wealth and opulence will get you nothing. Chaplin himself was immensely rich at the time, so perhaps it is a reminder for him too. The happiness in all The Tramp’s movies is not in wealth, but in poverty, where the human spirit is at its strongest. In City Lights, when the human spirit is tested the most, one of the strongest, most moving endings is produced. The girl gains her sight through an operation that’s paid for by The Tramp. He, on the other hand, has just gotten out of jail for stealing money from the millionaire (which was actually given to him). He stumbles upon the girl at her new flower shop. He recognises her, but she doesn’t recognise him. She expects a handsome man in a tailcoat to show up and sweep her off her feet again. She offers him money and a flower, but then she touches his hand. Instantly, memories are triggered. The hand feels familiar. She feels his arm, then his chest, then his face. “You?” she says through the speech card. “You can see now?” he replies. She holds her hand to her own chest, her eyes filling up with tears, “Yes, I can see now”. She is not startled or disgusted to learn that her knight in shining armour is actually dressed in tattered clothes. She is happy, relieved even. She sees, and accepts him for who he is. The millionaire is unable to do this.
City Lights works perfectly because it is able to balance moments like these with moments that, even today, are incredibly funny. I suppose in many ways, pantomime can never run out of steam. It delivers through a medium that is purely visual, and doesn’t need sound to compound its effect. We are watching comedy unfold, and Chaplin is able to choreograph it such that his awkwardly-moving Tramp stumbles around in a very smooth manner, crashing into things that we know are there, but that we’re not expecting to be of any real consequence. The opening scene is a masterclass of this. The mayor of the town is unveiling a new statue in the middle of the street. An audio track can be heard while he’s talking (it isn’t his voice, but a barrage of cackles and squeaks, no doubt Chaplin’s comment on the advent of sound), and as the curtain comes down, The Tramp is seen snoozing in one of the figures’ laps. Watch as he tries to get down, then stop during the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner. He treats the statues — and all his props — as living things, not as frozen objects.
I haven’t seen all of Chaplin’s movies yet, but I’ve seen enough to appreciate how he gets his audience to invest in The Tramp. He is a hard working character, and City Lights makes him work just that bit harder than before. He had major troubles in The Gold Rush, and in The Kid, but here, he has to deal with differing social classes on quite a large scale, the threat of alcohol (or rather the lack of it), and he has to fully accept the person he is. The pathos he generates is always true and from the heart, and that’s where we invest; in the communication of feelings and emotions between him and the other characters. Even if you’re not a fan of the silent movie, I suggest you watch City Lights. It appeals to all, sound or not.
Best Moment | There are so many amazing moments. The opening scene, the iconic boxing match, the ending. Just watch the movie and decide for yourself which moment stands out the most.
Worst Moment | Well… I did catch the wire holding him up during the boxing match. Have to admit that I was a tad disappointed.