For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!
As AFI’s list dwindles and I draw nearer the top spot, we continue to close certain chapters in American cinema. “The Searchers” was the last western, and John Ford’s last entry on the list. “Star Wars” was the last George Lucas film we’ll see, and “2001” had us bidding Stanley Kubrick a fond farewell.
Again I revisit my consistent struggle when talking about silent films. Some viewers just can’t get beyond the lack of dialogue. For all of the previous entries from “Intolerance” to “The General,” the lack of attention most people give great silent films is disappointing, but in regards to “City Lights,” it is tragic.
In “City Lights,” Chaplin, a master of dancelike physical comedy, illustrates an astute control over character and story. He begins to show a desire to expand the individual bits into more developed moments that are integrated seamlessly into his narrative.
Because of this desire to always give the character and story weight over everything else two incredible things happen. Often we are still chuckling over a small comedic moment as our characters quickly run into their next challenge. The characters continue to move along, and the viewers might catch or miss little moments. This layering of small details gives us an excuse to return to “City Lights” again and again.
The second remarkable thing that happens is the development of real characters. If story and character are your main emphases then you must allow your characters to fail or win in unexpected ways. You must attempt to build in some of the complexities that life has to offer. With “City Lights,” Chaplin never pulls any punches, the victories that the Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) manages are often compromised, and the failures are often crushing.
“City Lights” starts with the unveiling of a new statue, Peace and Prosperity. As the Mayor pulls the curtain from the statue, it reveals the Tramp, sleeping in the lap of Peace.
This scene establishes the Tramp as a reviled outsider. Others brush him aside or angrily chase him away. After a wonderful descent from the top of the statue, in which Chaplin showcases his ability to choreograph some of the best visual comedy you will see, the Tramp makes his escape.
As he navigates the city streets, the Tramp runs into a Blind Girl (Virginia Cherrill) selling flowers. She hears the automobiles moving along the street and mistakes the Tramp for a wealthy businessman. The Tramp, smitten by the Blind Girl’s beauty and kindness, continues the ruse by purchasing her last flower.
When she hears a car door shut and the car pull away, the Blind Girl believes the Tramp has left without his change. He silently takes a seat near her, and watches as she rinses her flower pail. His kindness is repaid by a bucket of water in the face.
We laugh, but there is more than just a silly gag at work here. This is what individuals will endure for people they love. The Tramp quickly moves away before the Girl realizes what has transpired.
That night, as the Tramp sleeps near the docks, an Eccentric Millionaire (Harry Myers) prepares to kill himself. The Tramp wakes and stops him just in time.
Out of drunken gratitude, the Millionaire puts the Tramp in his extra tuxedo and takes him out for a night of revelry through the town. The next morning the Tramp suggests that they purchase some flowers. The Millionaire gives him enough to buy the lot.
Most of the stills I have shown you so far illustrate that “City Lights” is less a slapstickish light comedy, and more a developed romantic comedy with touching elements of drama. Most of the time it is difficult to tell whether Chaplin wants the viewer to laugh or sigh. The complexity of the emotional content throughout the film is wonderful.
The Tramp’s purchase of the flowers reinforces the Blind Girl’s assumption that the Tramp is a wealthy man. He begins courting her, but the money from the Millionaire only comes while the Millionaire is intoxicated. The morning hangover brings with it the reality that the Tramp and the Millionaire live in separate worlds.
The first half of the film is largely built on visual bits and set up. There are moments that can drag a little, but the payoff that comes with the last half of the film makes all of the early groundwork completely worth it.
The Girl falls ill, and the Tramp takes a job in order to keep up his pretense of wealth. He often visits the Girl and brings her gifts and small surprises. The Tramp even finds an advertisement for a new surgical procedure, which could restore the Girl’s eyesight.
Since the Girl has fallen ill, her Grandmother (Florence Lee) has taken over selling flowers, but she doesn’t get as many sales as the Girl. The Tramp discovers a note that they have fallen behind on rent and will soon be evicted. He leaves the apartment determined to help.
The Tramp sits outside the house and ponders how he might save the day. The Millionaire has been away on business and the Tramp’s own small savings won’t cover the late rent or the Girl’s surgery. This moment could just as easily have come out of Lars Von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark.” Placed in a comedy, it deepens our connection to the characters and makes the story all the more real.
When the Tramp returns to work, the manager reprimands him for his tardiness and fires him. As the Tramp leaves work, a crooked boxer approaches him and offers him a deal to make some quick money. The Tramp will compete against the boxer and throw the fight, and then the two men will split the fifty-dollar pot. Now even more desperate than before for money to help the Blind Girl, the Tramp quickly accepts the offer.
Just before the match, the boxer gets a tip that the police are after him and takes off, leaving the Tramp to fight another boxer. This one isn’t interested in throwing the match or splitting the pot.
So the match begins.
This scene is delightful. Chaplin dances all over the ring, ducking behind the referee, getting tangled in the bell’s cord, and taking awkward swipes at his opponent.
We all know that somehow, the beloved Tramp will succeed in winning the fight, and paying the rent. In a lesser film, that is just what would happen, but in “City Lights” the Tramp loses the bout and is no closer to coming up with the money. The choice to have the Tramp lose is so surprising, so satisfying, and gives the film a wonderful sense of tension.
The Tramp wanders the nighttime streets, where he stumbles upon his friend the Millionaire back home from his business trip, and freshly inebriated. Again we know that the Tramp is just a conversation away from achieving his goal, but he and the Millionaire enter the house while a robbery is taking place.
The Millionaire is knocked unconscious by the burglars after giving the Tramp a large sum of money. The burglars escape, and the Tramp is blamed for the crime.
The Tramp escapes with the money, but the police are after him. He rushes to the Blind Girl, and gives her the money for the rent and the surgery before rushing off to face the police. He only has time to say a last goodbye and leave her clutching the needed money.
This film still could have come from “Sunrise” or “The Grapes of Wrath.” It doesn’t seem like the image from a comedy. That’s why “City Lights” is so good. Never does Chaplin take the easy out, or the suspected path. Instead at every turn, he complicates the story, by forcing his characters to make difficult decisions and suffer the consequences. It is often funny, and always real.
The Tramp is imprisoned for his crime, and released months later. The Girl, having had her sight restored by the surgery, now works in a flower shop downtown. She sees a couple of young boys tormenting the Tramp, who she does not recognize, and laughs along with her coworker.
The Tramp sees her, and becomes fixated when he realizes that she has had the surgery and can now see. He tries to get away before the Girl makes the connection and his long running impersonation of a wealthy man is shattered. The Girl, half-mocking him, calls him back and gives him a flower. When she touches his hand, she realizes who he is.
As the Girl’s slow realization becomes clearer, the Tramp waits, expectant and hopeful.
And that’s how the film ends.
We give Alfred Hitchcock, Mike Nichols, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese and many other modern filmmakers credit for giving us complex endings that allow for debate and discussion, and yet here, in 1931, Charlie Chaplin, a true genius and pioneer of film, gives us a wonderfully ambiguous and emotionally touching ending to his cinematic masterpiece.
If this film had sync sound, it could have been made last year and would still be one of the most compelling dramatic comedies ever made. The image of the Tramp has become an icon, but in “City Lights” he and the Blind Girl are perfect, flaws and all, because they are real people, who show us the best of humanity.
Up Next the top ten begins with #10 “The Wizard of Oz” (1939)
For links to #20-29, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #20 It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
For links to #30-39, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #30 Apocalypse Now (1979)
For links to #40-49, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #40 The Sound of Music (1965)
For links to #50-59, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #50 The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
For links to #60 – 69, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #60 Duck Soup (1933)
For links to #70 – 79, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #70 A Clockwork Orange (1971)
For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)
For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)