by Jeric Llanes
Even with the occasional use of an accompanying soundtrack and sound effects, City Lights (1931) remains as a bright standout in Charlie Chaplin’s illustrious repertoire of silent films among critics and audiences. Chaplin, who both directs and stars in the film, reprises his role as the iconic “Little Tramp”, the bowler-hat wearing fool whose silly antics lead him into a variety of hysterical situations. This time around we follow the Tramp’s misadventures after he humorously befriends a drunken millionaire, and falls in love with a blind flower girl facing economic hardship.
For a majority of the film these two plot points are kept separate from each other. It was like watching two different episodes of a sitcom, as there was a lot of switching back and forth between the two story arcs. On one side of the bill, we watch Chaplin’s character try to fit in with his new friend and the rich entourage. The setup of this arc is instantly funny considering that the Tramp is, well…a tramp! The poor man is clearly out of place and his knowledge of being gentleman-like is limited at best. And to top it all off, his “friend” will only recognize the Tramp when he is drunk, and will completely forget his existence when sober!
The situation itself is cleverly written, but Chaplin’s comedic bread and butter comes from the physicality of his performance. This is slapstick comedy at its best. There is a lot of stumbling around and close calls with physical danger, but there are also times of utter silliness. But what I loved most about this style of comedy is how often the camera would hold its shot in certain scenes, allowing for the actors to move around freely and carry the humor with their action. This kind of humor was purely derived from the way the actors decided to move, and how animated their faces were to display their emotions. Of course, they more or less had no choice. This is still a silent film after all! But overall, the comedic acting is top-notch and is a testament of great performances.
Though as great as the comedic performances are, the film still holds its own from a dramatic standpoint. The second half of the film focuses more on the Tramp’s romantic pursuit for the blind flower girl. As silly and outrageous as the Tramp is, he also has a good heart. He wants to do the right thing in helping this girl, first by paying off her debt and afterwards paying for surgery to cure her blindness. His first attempts at getting his rich friend to loan him some money don’t pan out, but he moves on to find other work to get the money himself. There are a lot of laughs that follow, but the ending in particular is jarringly emotional, and perhaps the film’s finest moment.
The Tramp struggles to fit in with anyone at all, and the only person who has accepted him is the girl who is unable to see who he really is. He finds a true connection with someone in a society that has mostly shunned him, so he finds himself in a dilemma by the end of the film. Even if the Tramp can somehow find the money to cure this girl, will she still accept him after she finds out who he really is?
And that is where the greatness of this film lies. This isn’t all about the laughs and can still compel audiences to watch from an emotional standpoint. Chaplin has created this character that we all love to see flop around, but at the same time he created someone we can sympathize with. City Lights showcases both sides to this iconic figure in cinema, and if you haven’t yet watched a Chaplin film with the Tramp, then this is a great film to get started with! If you came for some laughs, then this is the place to be. If you came for a charming love story, then this is also the place to be! Either way, this film was such a joy to watch, and I highly recommend you go see it if you’re in the mood for a classic romantic comedy.
Where to Watch this Film:City Lights (1931) is currently available for stream on Netflix and can be rented/purchased on Youtube, Amazon Video, VUDU, Google Play, and iTunes.