Setting the Scene
A crowd gathers around an outdoor stage, squinting up at the authoritative speaker as he approaches the microphone. He sucks in a breath, his bulging belly rising, and as his mouth moves to speak, instead there is a kazoo beeping in place of his voice. And as he introduces the woman speaker behind him and steps away for her to approach the microphone, the kazoo’s pitch raises. Behind them is the statue they’re unveiling, covered in a large white sheet, and then the sheet is pulled away with a flourish to reveal… the infamous, iconic, legendary tramp — Charlie Chaplin’s tramp — fast asleep in the lap of the statue.
This is how Charlie Chaplin’s silent classic City Lights opens. It’s a legendary opening scene that has been referenced in essays and other films and in books, and it is only one of several iconic moments in the film.
City Lights runs the gamut on everything that makes a film a masterpiece: social commentary on class divide, arresting cinematography, lowbrow and highbrow comedy, incredibly expressive acting, a perfectly composed score. Chaplin billed City Lights in its introductory title cards as A Comedy Romance in Pantomime. Nobody will ever describe it better than that. It so artfully and meaningfully glides between the comedy, the romance, and the slapstick all without the characters uttering even a single word. Perhaps I’d even go so far as to say that sets it apart from all films in general. But what ends up making it a true timeless classic that is still so widely loved ninety years later is its storytelling.
At its core, City Lights is about the tramp falling in love with a blind flower girl who is kind to him and repaying that kindness by finding a way to gift her sight. Along the way, he gets bullied by a couple of jerk newsies, nearly drowns trying to save an alcoholic millionaire from suicide, attracts a pack of neighborhood dogs by accidentally swallowing a whistle, gets a job shoveling animal droppings in the street, enters a boxing competition, and is erroneously arrested for assault and theft. These are all incidents you’d expect to find in a Chaplin tramp film. But an unbridled heart runs through its scenes, which is what plants the film so deeply in the annals of Hollywood’s rich history.
Music and Effects
Chaplin went above and beyond with perfectly placed emotional beats within his musical score. There’s a very specific and moving theme for the blind flower girl, played so beautifully and heartbreakingly by Virginia Cherrill, that matches her kindness and warmth, and her moments of heartbreak and anguish.
Recorded sound effects, like when he drunkenly falls and smacks his forehead against piano keys, were also a key component of Chaplin’s work. He had a singular knack for invention, and countless filmmakers have borrowed from him in creating their own stories and visual cues over the decades.
Comedy and Romance
Like his friend and peer Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin perfected comedic tension in his films. It’s on full display in City Lights. Something is going wrong in a situation, and just when it’s about to happen, it doesn’t. And again. And again. So that when it finally happens, that tension bursts and the fall is that much funnier.
City Lights is punctuated by hilarious slapstick comedy perfectly choreographed by Chaplin himself. Not only do we get a famous scene in which the tramp gets drunk, but we also get the infamous boxing match, which has been emulated countless times since it first hit screens in 1931.
But the romantic story in City Lights is what has kept it so fresh over the years, especially as a silent film. Chaplin accomplished this with emotional tension, drawing out the moment of the tramp and the flower girl meeting again.
The ending of City Lights, one of the most powerful in film history, elicits an almost embarrassing amount of emotion out of me every time I see it.
I’m not alone, either. According to Charlie Chaplin, he spotted his friend Albert Einstein in the audience during the premiere, wiping tears from his cheeks at the end of the film.
So pop on a bowler cap, grab your wooden cane, and give Chaplin a chance.
**You can watch City Lights now on HBO Max!**