In my review of Modern Times, I said that it was part of Charlie Chaplin’s “Big 3” along with The Gold Rush and City Lights. Since I have already reviewed The Gold Rush as well—and, in that review, admitted that I had great desire to tarry in Chaplin’s world for a little while—I would like to now provide a review of Chaplin’s best picture, City Lights.
Why is it his best picture? The answer is simple. What is great about a Chaplin movie?
Chaplin movies are funny. City Lights is the funniest, though by slim margins.
Chaplin movies are romantic. City Lights is by far the most romantic.
Chaplin movies are full of iconic images of urbanity. City Lights has the most of these images.
Chaplin movies never get old. City Lights is the most modern of all his movies, in that it is the most popular amid young audiences today.
I will add one more element to the mix. In my review of Modern Times, I made reference to the way Chaplin movies end. They end in a smile. They make you sincerely happy. I’ve yet to see a movie that makes me happier than City Lights—with the possible exception of Singin’ in the Rain. The end sequence does what comedies today don’t do: it culminates a laugh into a smile. Comedies today try to provide a closing scene with laughs enough to conquer the ones already exhaled. This one leaves you smiling. Smiles mean more than laughs do. Smiles imply comedy. But they also imply contentment, satisfaction, pride, submission, love and surprise. Perhaps that is why the younger brother to Lights, Modern Times, ends with the imperative: “Smile!” I think that it is a principle Chaplin understood. Though lacking some of the iconic images of Modern Times, Chaplin delivered sequences that are eternally funny and timelessly daring, including an impromptu boxing match with all its accompanying fears and pains that proceed and succeed it, as well as a drunken night party with an insensible millionaire.
Perhaps the most funny is that boxing match. Not only does it stand as perhaps the greatest moment in physical/silent comedy in the history of cinema, it is also, perhaps, the most telling metaphor for Chaplin’s Tramp that we have ever seen. One reason why the sequence in Modern Times with the conveyor belt is so famous is because it somehow represents everything about the Tramp in one singular moment. He is an object, frequently acted upon, not acting for himself. He is caught in a trap, in so many ways, of a changing, progressive world. He represents the non-heroic element of humanity, whose banality has more of a poetic beauty than a courageous one. And yet, he lives on. With the boxing sequence in City Lights, we are granted an even more potent allegory for the depression-era citizen: a man who has been thrust, through no intent of his own, into a fist fight. And, in order to win, he has to either dodge the punches, or take them, and keep getting up. This may sound depressing, but it’s not. We’re not talking Cinderella Man fighting Joe Louis, or Robert De Niro’s Jake LaMotta yelling to the great Sugar Ray Robinson that he “never got him down”. No, this Chaplin! It is as funny as it is powerful. It is everything that the Tramp was. It was all about the good humor of survival.
These events seem to get funnier and funnier as the film goes on, but unlike other comedies for comedy’s sake, this one ends for goodness’ sake. The love story between the Tramp and the blind flower-girl is perhaps the most fulfilling in all of cinematic history; and unlike other great film pairings in romantic classics such as Casablanca, Romeo and Juliet, Love Story, An Affair to Remember, and Gone with the Wind, this one actually works out at the end with two surviving partners whose handicaps are now behind them. Universally regarded at the top of all the lists, including by men such as Orson Welles, Andrei Tarkovsky, Woody Allen, Federico Fellini and Stanley Kubrick, it has influenced many other films. (Supposedly Allen based the end scene of “Manhattan” on its respective final scene). I really do feel that there is no better closing scene in movie history. There are few better movies at all.
I make a lot of references to the comedic imagery in Chaplin’s films. These images (dancing bread rolls, a human inside a giant motor, a surprise appearance of the Tramp at the unveiling of a community statue) are born of Chaplin’s adherence to the principles of the nature of photography. The debate that prevailed even before Chaplin entered the industry in regards to the merits of cinema circled around the notion of the nature of the art form. For men such as Eisenstein, a contemporary of Chaplin in the Soviet Union, that meant a formulaic adherence to montage theory. For men like Georges Méliès, it meant the creative recreation of imagination through formative movie tricks and set pieces. For men like the Lumière brothers and Robert J. Flaherty, it meant an appeal to the truest, purest nature of the medium: the photograph. The nature of the photograph, something that is shared by no other art medium, is that is the only means whereby time and space can be frozen (manipulated), and is thereby considered the most powerful art in terms of its ability. While other art forms can do what photography cannot in that they can supersede the constraints of reality by ignoring time or space, the photograph embraces reality despite those constraints. While the adherence to realism has evolved over time (see my “Slice of Cake” theory as discussed on the page of the same name), the importance of movies as a system of pictures is of paramount importance.
What the greatest directors always seem to do is they demonstrate an ability to take a really good picture. It would be interesting to see a Chaplin movie in a series of still shots. I think it would be incredible exactly what amazing photographs would be developed. What Chaplin did was he gave due credit to the camera as the ultimate sage between him and his skits. In order for Chaplin the man to truly connect with Chaplin the Tramp so that the whole world could see was for Chaplin the man to know exactly where and when and how to use the camera that stood between them like Cerberus before the gates to Hades. What made those iconic images not only survive, but age so well, was how Chaplin’s deftness in front of the camera was matched with his mastery behind it.
In City Lights, these images abound. The opening sequence is just as famous as those well-known opening scenes in the factory in Modern Times. His battle with a stationary statue before a crowd of onlookers did a superb job of symbolizing the whole point of the Tramp’s creation at Chaplin’s hand. The Tramp, by virtue of his role in movies was decidedly public. His every act was watched from the first release of Kid Auto Races at Venice and Mabel’s Strange Predicament to his final swan song in Modern Times. And, the Tramp was always fighting against an immovable object. He was characterized as a man who desperately attempted to be coy and chivalrous and dignified despite his vagrant social status. He is in a constant attempt to escape his status (and the authority figures that remind him—and us—of that status constantly), but for all of his cunning, there is always another reminder around the corner.
In making his feature films, Chaplin established a romantic edge to his comedy that, when we consider the contents of the previous paragraph, gives the Tramp’s entire existence purpose. There is something depressing about the Tramp’s inability to hit it big, to catch his big break, to get lucky, or what have you. There is never any real victory, just temporary moments of survival. By adding romance, Chaplin commented on life in ways that he never could have in all his analysis of urbanity and progress. It didn’t matter who the Tramp was, the point was, he could love and he could be loved.
Perhaps that is why the final scene is so wonderful. In all honesty, I think it’s the best ending in movie history. I’ve never, never, never felt so good when a movie ended. This is because, amid all these comedic moments of entrapment and escape, problem and manic solution, every moment of success seems so temporary. Chaplin makes it work by making it all so jovial anyway. But, in the final sequence of City Lights, we get, for the first real time in any Chaplin movie, a finality. The victory, finally, seems permanent.
As I explained in my review of Modern Times, Chaplin took a long hiatus from film after City Lights. With an ending like the one he provided in City Lights, I think he would be just as beloved if he had retired. I am still grateful, however, for his later films. They are also amazing.
But, there is something about the sincerity and love that defines City Lights that makes it his superior picture. I know that Chaplin himself wished everyone would remember him best for The Gold Rush, and I don’t mean much in comparison with him, but I highly encourage all viewers to check out City Lights and strive never to forget it. I don’t think you ever could. There is a reason why the American Film Institute named City Lights the number 1 Romantic Comedy of all time. Because it is.