SPOILER ALERT: Do you need a spoiler alert for a film that was released in 1931? Even so, if you've never seen this film (as I hadn't until recently) please go watch it. It is well-worth your time, and it completely earns its place as one of the pillars of cinema history.
Growing up, I had certainly heard of Charlie Chaplin. I knew that he was once the greatest movie star in the world - a legend of the bygone silent film era. The temptation is to view him (and silent films in general) as a relic. This, I must confess, was an ignorant assumption I espoused until very recently. Finally, as I've been going back and watching more classic movies, I decided that I really needed to explore the silent era to reach true cinephile status. To this point, the only silent film I had ever watched was F.W. Murnau's influential horror classic Nosferatu. To further explore silent films, Chaplin seemed like an obvious starting point.
What I found was a powerful lesson - good storytelling spans genres, conventions and even years.
Chaplin's classic City Lights was the first film of his that I watched, and it floored me right away. One of the great feelings in experiencing art is when you've watched a film and you instantly have a sense that it will be one of your favorites. I certainly felt this way about City Lights.
I was discussing the film with my friend, Michael, recently. He's a big Chaplin fan, and he described the power of City Lights so well. He said that Chaplin is a master of getting you to laugh one moment and cry the next. This range of emotion is the undercurrent of City Lights.
The movie focuses once again on Chaplin's famous character - the Tramp. The movie opens with one of the more hilarious opening scenes I think I've ever experienced in a film. City Lights was made in a time when "talkies" were becoming the norm in Hollywood. But Chaplin still felt that silent pictures offered the best expression of his creative vision, so City Lights had no voiceover. However, he subtly winked at the new trend in Hollywood in this opening scene where a politician is dedicating a statue. Instead of his voice, we just hear random noises that fill in for his speech. It is funny in such an odd way. Then, once you know the backstory of the production, it becomes even more satirical.
But the opening scene brings raucous laughs once the Tramp is found - sleeping on the statue itself under the large tarp covering it for the unveiling. He tries to get down, but hilarious slapstick ensues. He finally gets away from the scene, and begins his daily travels around the city. The film's main plot commences when he meets a blind woman selling flowers on a street corner. Through a chance occurrence, she mistakes him for a wealthy man passing by to leave in his chauffeured vehicle. The juxtaposition will be a theme throughout the rest of the film. How can a vagrant be mistaken for a wealthy man? That is the basis for the concurrent plot thread.
The Tramp happens upon a man attempting to commit suicide later that night. He saves the man, whom we find out to be a millionaire. The two become friends, but the millionaire only recognizes his "friend" when he is drunk. After he sobers up, he only sees a poor wretch.
Throughout the film, the Tramp uses his new friendship to allow him to help the girl with whom he has fallen madly in love. In one scene, he brings her groceries to her apartment and realizes that she is struggling to pay her rent. He also finds an article in the newspaper about a new medical procedure that can cure blindness. He encourages her to find a way to have the procedure, and he also promises to help her with the rent. The girl lives with her grandmother, but the grandmother is never around when the Tramp visits. So the girl has no idea about his true identity.
Much of the film's humor comes from these instances of mistaken identity. You can see just how influential this film is on so many beloved romantic comedies. City Lights doesn't need audible dialogue to be wildly entertaining. But it vaults into the upper reaches of cinema with its tender notes of emotional weight. There is no better example of this than the film's legendary closing scene.
Even if you've never seen the film, you've certainly seen clips of Chaplin's character holding a flower while looking at the girl. To say it is a touching scene does not do it justice. After everything these characters have gone through during the film, the closing lines pack a heavy emotional force.
"You can see now?"
"Yes, I can see now."
The woman has since had the procedure which has cured her blindness while the Tramp was away (for reasons I won't divulge in an attempt to save some spoilers). Now, she can see him for who he is. What a simple yet profound way to close the story.
Before I close this review, however, I must also make note of one other particular scene. Through various shenanigans, the Tramp finds himself in a boxing match. He entered under the assumption that his opponent would help him throw the match and they'd each split the profits. But that opponent is forced to leave before the match, and another man takes his place. What ensues must be one of the funniest scenes I've ever watched in a movie. I don't want to over-explain it - you really need to watch it for yourself.
And that's really the key sentiment - experience this film for yourself. City Lights will always be a beautiful reminder for me not to write off any particular genre or artist until I've experienced the art with my own senses. Had I never made this foray into silent film, I wouldn't have known just how beloved this film would become for me. More than that, I now want to explore more of Chaplin's films, as well as others from the era. Whole new worlds of cinema are open to me now that were not before.
I can see now, too.
Note on content: There is no sexual content in the film, and the only violence is of a slapstic nature (the boxing scene is a good example). One character is drunk throughout much of the film, and alcohol and smoking are present at various times. A scene where a character attempts suicide may be frightening to some, but it is not dealt with in a particularly shocking way. Any of the film's darker elements are all combined with Chaplin's slapstick and humor, so it blunts whatever intensity may be present. I think this is a film that most audiences would find appropriate.