City Lights (1931): Chaplin’s Masterpiece

Charlie Chaplin’s comedies, to the juvenile and the inner child alike, are the epitome of magic in the movies. An eternally youthful hyperbole, very few artists could elicit such a sensation, from a well of tears to pangs of laughter no remedy can cure, as Chaplin did with his immortal Tramp. True, he had a tendency to milk a joke until the udder ran dry, and what seemed compassionate is now, in the collective consciousness of the cynical age we live in, considered naïve and sentimental. And yet the potent mixture of pathos and humour, abetted by great humanism, touched the hearts of millions, from America to France and Iran to the Czech Republic. City Lights is his masterpiece. There are numerous scenes of hilarity which use sound effects to heighten the effect. These range from the unveiling of a monument (upon which Chaplin is sleeping), to the scene when Chaplin swallows a dog whistle, and in trying to cough it up he attracts all the dogs in the neighbourhood. Its principal message, though, is of the blindness of love, a simple theme but elicited quite profoundly. This is not physical love but spiritual, an aspect of romance rarely portrayed in film these days. What is most moving, and sometimes painful to watch, are the depths that the Tramp goes to in order to raise money to give the blind girl sight, from sweeping the road to failing in an riotous boxing bout.

It did help that he saved the life of a millionaire to begin with, but his new companionship was short lived, as although he was given $1000 for the girl’s operation, the millionaire was drunk at the time. When sober, the tramp is mistakenly accused of stealing the money. He ends up in jail, with the girl left unaware of what her patron looks like. 

In the final scene when the two meet, she delights in her new vision, but becomes tearful over her benefactor’s plight when she realises who he really is. The camera focuses on Chaplin’s nervously blissful face, flower in hand. It can be described as a moment of catharsis, but words are futile in expressing deep feelings. It is no wonder, then, that City Lights, released four years after the coming of sound and with only sound effects and an original score on the soundtrack, is silent cinema’s everlasting legacy for the ages.

 

© 2017 AGP

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