I wouldn’t say I’m a huge Charlie Chaplin fan, but I’m a fan. Maybe of the man as much as the actor. I read his autobiography years ago and was quite impressed with it. I agree more than I disagree with what I know of his values and politics (though I’d say he was a bit naïve and unsophisticated about certain things politically). I think it was horrible the way he was treated by the political right in this country: basically tricked into leaving the country and then barred from returning for about twenty years. And I still get choked up watching the YouTube clip of him triumphantly, and very humbly, receiving a lifetime achievement award as an octogenarian at the Academy Awards in the year he was finally allowed to return to the U.S., which featured reportedly the longest ovation in the history of the Oscars.
But as far as getting into his movies, I’ve seen about half a dozen of them (and bits and pieces of some of the shorts), and mostly they’re just OK to me. Funny here and there, but not uproariously so.
His films are of a very different time and place, and in my experience humor rarely translates well from one context to a drastically different one.
I mean, I don’t want to overstate that. I do enjoy Chaplin’s humor. But not to the extent I enjoy the humor of some of the people of my own lifetime—Woody Allen, Monty Python, Steve Martin, etc. Plus there are elements of social and political commentary to his films that I sometimes appreciate. So, like I say, I’m a fan of his work, even if not the biggest of fans.
But the one film of his that I would put on a higher level—that I would say not just that it’s pretty good, but that I regard as one of my top hundred and probably one of my top fifty films of all time—is City Lights.
Not only is it at least as funny as the other Chaplin films I’ve seen, but the humor occurs in the context of a story that—while not strictly speaking very realistic—is genuinely moving and beautifully romantic.
I may only rank City Lights in the top hundred or possibly top fifty films I’ve ever seen (which is still damn good, by the way, considering how many films I’ve seen in my life—well over eight hundred just since I started writing these essays, and thousands altogether), but if you want to talk about individual scenes, I’d put the closing scene of City Lights more like in my top twenty or top ten favorite movie scenes of all time.
City Lights came out in 1931. That’s significant in that that was four years into the era of “talkies,” yet Chaplin chose to make it as a silent film. It featured him in the lead in his iconic role as the Tramp. Which largely explains why it was silent, as the Tramp was a pantomime character, and it’s unlikely he would have had the same magic had he been converted into a conventional speaking character.
The film opens with a bunch of high-falutin’ dignitaries giving speeches and congratulating each other on the unveiling of a monument entitled “Peace and Prosperity,” though the unveiling goes awry when it reveals the Tramp asleep on the monument. They then wrestle around with him in slapstick fashion and eventually drive him away.
While wandering the city after having been so rudely awakened, the Tramp comes upon a beautiful blind girl selling flowers and is immediately smitten. Because of the timing of the closing of a luxury car door that she hears, she gets the impression that he is wealthy. He befriends her, and chooses not to correct her misimpression.
He really doesn’t exploit her error for any malicious purpose, certainly not to gain sexual access to her. His admiration of her is purely chaste, as he would never consider himself on the level of one so beautiful as she (just as she is flattered and amazed that a wealthy man would take such an interest in little old her).
The girl works in her grandmother’s flower shop, and the two of them live in a nearby flat. The Tramp takes to visiting her regularly in her flat, conversing with her, reading to her, and thoroughly enjoying her company, always when the grandmother is away.
He quickly learns that she is in serious trouble. There is some hope that her sight can be restored by an operation, but that requires money she and her grandmother don’t have. She has some other illness that is not identified, but renders her bedridden for a time. Rent on the flat is overdue, and they are on the eve of eviction.
Of course the Tramp, being a tramp, has no way to help a situation that requires money above all else, and yet he vows to find a way to solve his beloved’s problems. The bulk of the film, then, consists of his comic, unlikely attempts to come up with the large sum of money necessary. His best option would seem to be to rely on the generosity of an eccentric millionaire who unexpectedly befriends him, however this is complicated by the fact that their friendship only exists when the heavy drinking millionaire is plastered; when he is sober he has no memory of who the Tramp even is.
Ultimately the Tramp comes through and saves the day. But all his heroic efforts are not intended to win him the girl, but instead, as he knows, will result in him sacrificing even the platonic connection he now enjoys with her. For once she has the surgery that he funds for her, she’ll be able to see him as he is—see that he is a tramp, and not the wealthy suitor that she has built up in her fantasies—and out of shame that is something he cannot allow.
Until, that is, months later, when, post-successful eye surgery, their paths cross by chance, leading to that extraordinary final scene. Perhaps one day I’ll have watched that scene enough times to dull the emotion, and I’ll make it all the way through it with no tears.