City Lights (1931)

Charlie Chaplin and Virginia Cherrill in City Lights

I don’t know what I wanted from City Lights. What I do know is that I was awed by what was considered as Chaplin’s relatively “lesser” earlier works (The Kid, The Gold Rush, The Circus) and that I most definitely am a sucker for romantic comedies. So upon revisiting the film in the context of it being one of Chaplin’s masterpieces and it being hailed by some as the greatest romantic comedy of all time, I was expecting something significantly affecting. Unfortunately, although there are still a lot of legitimate flashes of brilliance throughout the film, I can’t help but feel shortchanged after watching.

For a film that is consistently touted – along with Modern Times – as Chaplin’s best work and among the best films ever made, City Lights sure opens pretty weak. Instead of the kind of witty physical comedy that the world has come to expect from the filmmaker, the film dishes out a bunch of perfunctory slapstick gags as we’re introduced to the tramp once again. Yet even then, it’s easy to see that the the genius is still definitely there. In the scene, for example, where the tramp meets the girl for the first time; in only two minutes, with barely the use of any words, Chaplin is able to convey so much: That the tramp is initially cold towards the girl, that the girl is blind, that the tramp discovers she is blind and warms up to her instantly, and finally that she has mistaken him for a wealthy gentleman. That is the kind of concise intertwining of comedy, plot movement, character development, and sentimentality that I’ve come to expect from Chaplin at his best. Unfortunately though, it’s not something that carries on throughout the film.

The film progresses at an odd pace, with some supporting bits (with the tramp & the drunken gentleman) feeling like they run on for too long and the main narrative only popping up in parts. What aggravates this the most though is that a lot of the jokes simply fall flat. The huge rock being dropped on the tramp’s foot, the bottle of alcohol spilling on the tramp’s crotch, the lady sitting on a lit cigar, and the tramp swapping out the foreman’s cheese for a bar of soap are all just the worst offenders of a common theme that runs throughout the film: That the comedy, quite bluntly put, is cheap (especially for Chaplin’s standards). The really good gags are few and far between, with the best laughs in the film coming towards the end in a sequence where the tramp tries to earn some money for the blind girl by fighting in an amateur boxing match.

Where the film triumphantly succeeds is in the romance. It may not be consistently heartwarming, and does take a while to get going (primarily because of the odd pacing in the middle), but it alone makes the film somehow earn its reputation. The scene where the tramp brings the girl to her picturesque little home is so subtly beautiful and charming; and by the time he makes it his mission to earn money for the girl’s rent and to cure her blindness, one can’t help but be moved by the selflessness of the poor fellow. In typical Chaplin fashion, through a weird turn of events, he does eventually get the girl the money. Unfortunately, he also lands himself in jail while doing so. And what this sets up is nothing but one of the finest and most emotionally striking endings in all of cinema.

Severely lacking in laughs, but overflowing with heart, City Lights just begs me to reiterate what I mentioned in my review of The Circus – that maybe Chaplin was even more versed in the subtleties of human emotion more than the comedy that he is known for. Upon watching it for a second time, I think I have to put myself in the minority that would not consider film as one of his better releases; but hey, at least it leaves us with that magnificent ending.

Rating: B (good)

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