Directed by: Charlie Chaplin
Written by: Charlie Chaplin
Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Florence Lee, Harry Myers, Al Ernest Garcia
Showing your true self to someone can be scary because it requires a level of vulnerability where the pain of rejection can hurt to an unimaginable degree. This often appears on an emotional level for us, but in City Lights, it occurs when our protagonist fears the woman he loves will not reciprocate feelings if she’s able to physically see his financial struggles. Set up as his sweetest story, this film helps set up the romantic comedy genre for what it will become today.
After being mistaken for a wealthy man, the Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) meets a blind girl (Virginia Cherrill) selling flowers on the street. They build a connection with each other and the Tramp commits to finding a way to pay for an operation that could restore her sight. A challenging proposition for the Tramp, as he has no money until he runs into a suicidal wealthy man (Harry Myers).
As rambunctious as ever, City Lights displays Charlie Chaplin with a sharp edge of rebellion all masked in a touching story of immense care. With the incoming arrival of talkies, he made it a point to mock the idea of these films taking over the craft he perfected. Thus why it shows the opening sequence of the statue unveiling with two characters speaking to the audience and nothing but indecipherable noise coming out of their mouths. A similar sound to what you would hear in a Charlie Brown special. The scene then continues to show the Tramp sleeping on top of this newly unveiled statue in the most uncomfortable position imaginable. The typical shenanigans occur as he scurries away.
It then reaches the moment where he meets the blind girl. As he walks up to her, a car door slams behind him, which makes the girl believe he’s a man of money. The Tramp offers to buy a flower from her with the last remaining currency he had on his person, partly feeling bad for the girl but also because of the growing romantic feelings he has for her. That very same night, the Tramp ventures to a bench by a body of water where it appears a man is attempting to kill himself by tying a rope to his neck with the other end to a boulder as he plans to drag himself to the bottom. The Tramp intervenes, which results in a hilarious sequence of them continually being pushed and dragged into the water. This scene like several throughout the film shows a level of craft Chaplin has been eternally praised for with good reason. They always look dynamic and frantic thus making them endlessly entertaining. These scenes worked wonders with audiences of the time and still have the same kinetic energy today.
All of these sequences show Chaplin at what he does best, which is to put the Tramp through the wringer of circumstances for our entertainment. The scene where he and the millionaire go to a restaurant has all the ridiculous action one loves from a Chaplin feature. From the accidental seizure of others’ belongings to the Tramp’s readiness to get into a fistfight with someone he believes may be mistreating a woman. Things can never go easily, because what would be the fun in that?
The core of the story lands on the Tramp trying to accrue the money, which could pay for the eye operation for the blind girl to see. Even with this shattering reality he has set out for himself, because of the fear she will not date him if she discovers he has no money, he decides to risk his body for her happiness. The most drastic of the actions appears when he agrees to join a boxing exhibition. Things get wacky when the person he was meant to fight needs to leave and the Tramp needs to take on a tougher opponent who can knock down anyone with a single blow. This change of circumstances sets up the fight and it certainly delivers because of the dynamic way the sequence was shot. Frantic and quickly paced, it shows the Tramp dodging the slugger and using the referee as a shield at times to land his cheap shots. It’s his only recourse as he stands no chance in a straight-up fight.
The fears the Tramp has of the blind girl finding out he doesn’t have deep pockets comes from his surroundings and what he has experienced. He obviously does not have the money to even sustain himself, which is why we find him sleeping on an uncomfortable statue. Even when he becomes friends with the millionaire, on multiple occasions, he gets treated terribly by people whenever the wealthy friend does not stand at his side. You can imagine he’s had it rough living out on the streets constantly trying to make it while constantly being looked down on. He hears the same will happen again, which makes the journey to acquire the necessary funds for the operation all the more selfless.
As fun as all of his other features but with the most heartwarming element, City Lights deserves the praise it has received. It mixes its comedy well with the romantic moments sprinkled throughout the narrative. It comes together smashingly well with all of the ridiculous circumstances, which shows the Tramp can just about survive any circumstance thrown his way. The comedy still works effectively today, which confirms the timeless nature of Chaplin’s physical comedy where it can be just as funny almost 100 years later.