City Lights Not Chaplin's Best

City Lights (1931)
Written, produced, and directed by Charlie Chaplin
United Artists, 87 minutes, Not-rated.
★★ ½

Film buffs fall into two camps when it comes to championing films that directors think are their best work: those who feel the director’s vision should have primacy, and those who think directors need editors and are too close to their work to evaluate it objectively. This is a harder task with Charlie Chaplin, arguably Hollywood’s first superstar. Early on, Chaplin began to write, direct, and finance his own pictures, hence every frame you see is as Chaplin willed to appear. Was he always right? I don’t think so.  

It was his opinion that City Lights was his finest film; it is mine that there are numerous Chaplin films that are better and more important: The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), Modern Times (1936), The Great Dictator (1940), and Monsieur Verdoux (1947) spring to mind. Chaplin may have felt as he did because City Lights took so long to bring to the screen. He started it in 1927, but other films and circumstances occasioned numerous delays and it took four years before it was ready for release. Ah, but a lot can happen in four years, most notably the introduction of “talkies,” sound pictures that relegated silent flicks to the popular culture graveyard. In part because Chaplin originally envisioned City Lights as a pantomime, and in part because he was not yet confident in the new medium, City Lights was released with just a musical track and intertitles. Within four years, all Hollywood films featured at least some synchronized sound.

Chaplin’s love of City Lights can also be explained in that he saw it is a film of great humanity. Watching it today–and anyone serious about film should–begs the question of whether Chaplin confused humanity and sentimentality. Chaplin again donned the Little Tramp costume that is so universally familiar: baggy trousers, bowtie, a shabby and tight fitting vest jacket, bowler hat, greasepaint moustache, and cane. He wanders a nameless city in which he is either anonymous or the butt of pranks delivered even by lowly newsboys. Two subplots interweave, the first being his discovery of a beautiful blind flower seller (Virginia Cherrill) to whom he is kind, the second his on/off friendship with a quirky millionaire (Henry Myers) whose suicide he prevents. The problem with the second relationship is that the millionaire is a heavy drinker who showers the Tramp with kindness and gifts when drunk but doesn’t recognize him and has him tossed onto the sidewalk when sober. The Tramp parlays his foul-weather friend’s largess into helping the flower seller and her grandmother (Florence Lee), but at great personal peril.

There are several pieces of classic slapstick in City Lights–being nearly impaled by a statue’s sword, falling into a river, a bout with hiccups, and a decidedly unorthodox boxing match–but several gags don’t hold up well and overall there isn’t as much of the superb physicality that we associate with Chaplin. Virtually every sight gag in this film would be surpassed in spades in Modern Times–in my opinion Chaplin’s greatest film. I’d also argue that City Lights’ finest moment isn’t comedic at all; it’s the film’s deliciously ambiguous final scene.

The American Film Institute rates City Lights as # 76 on its list of the 100 greatest films of all time. Was the AFI unduly influenced by Chaplin’s own view of its importance? I don’t know that to be the case, though I’m sure I could come up with enough better movies to push City Lights out of the top 100. City Lights is diverting, sweet, and sentimental, but it is no masterpiece.

Rob Weir


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