Though Modern Times represents the best work that Charlie Chaplin created, City Lights has to rank a close second, and is actually the most perfect Chaplin film in his vast repertoire. The plot is much tighter than Modern Times, and it contains a veritable cornucopia of Chaplin hallmarks: slapstick, pathos, great pantomime acting, and an anti-authoritarian attitude.
For anyone familiar with Chaplin's work, his trademark perfectionism is never more evident than in City Lights. Chaplin produced and directed, composed the music, did the final editing, and acted in it.
That City Lights was nearly 3 years in the making (before it was finally released in 1931) tells only part of the story. These long months of production were difficult for Chaplin: his mother died, the stock market crashed, and talking movies were making their first appearance.
Chaplin realized City Lights could be the last movie for his Little Tramp character if sound came to dominate the film industry. After all, the Little Tramp expressed himself through pantomime and subtle gestures; a speaking voice could only limit his emotional range and universal appeal, considering how a monolingual Tramp wouldn't relate as directly with his non-English fans.
Fortunately, Chaplin returns in 1936 with a mostly silent Little Tramp in his subsequent Modern Times, and we see the virtuosity of the Little Tramp in City Lights.
Two moments stand out that demonstrate how effectively Chaplin reveals his thoughts through the subtle pantomime of his facial expressions.
One occurs near the beginning, as he is gazing in a storefront window that contains an artful "nude" statue of a woman. Chaplin obviously just wants to gawk at the nude, but wants to preserve his dignity by pretending to examine the other items in the showcase. This scene is all the more hilarious because the camera allows us to watch the Tramp in action from inside the display case.
The other occurs at the end, when the Tramp communicates his feelings to the blind girl (Virginia Cherrill). I cannot think of a more poignant ending to a film; it continues to bring a bit of moisture to my eyes each time I see it.
Of course, there are the trademark slapstick scenes that continue to bring howls of laughter.
In the opening scene, the townspeople gather for the dedication of a city statue to mark "Peace and Prosperity." When the statue is uncovered, they are horrified to discover the Little Tramp sleeping on the statue. They demand that he get down. Chaplin gets his pants caught in a sword, and elicits laughter when he can't quite stand up for the playing of the national anthem. As the Tramp dismounts, look for a symbolic "thumbing of the nose" visual directed towards the local authorities.
Some hilarious sequences involve a millionaire (Harry Myers) who acts like the Tramp is his best buddy when he's drunk but treats the Tramp with disgust when he's sober.
The first sequence occurs when the Tramp and the millionaire end up tied together and dragged into the city river, and they play on variations of getting in and out of the water.
Another humorous exchange: The millionaire takes the Tramp out on the town to a dance club. We are treated to missing-chair variations, see the Tramp mistakenly defend the honor of a lady in a dance routine, and see him do some outrageously fast dancing with a surprised patron.
The most famous slapstick-style scene in City Lights occurs in a boxing ring. Though there's a lot of humorous material before the match in the locker room, the events during the actual boxing match are howl-inducingly funny. The Tramp nimbly uses his footwork to position himself between the referee and his opponent.
Yet beyond the slapstick is the pathos. The Tramp is again a loner, continually looking for ways to survive while preserving his self-respect. Some young newspaper boys laugh at him behind his back and shoot beans at him through straws, but the Tramp never loses his cool.
It may be hard to believe that a person could pick up a cigar stub off the street with dignity, but Chaplin does. Finding a coin becomes a real treasure, but the Tramp readily gives it away when he finds a blind girl selling flowers. This becomes the emotional core of City Lights.
The Tramp is mesmerized by the girl, and decides to do everything in his power to take care of her, from providing food and rent money to funding an operation to cure her blindness. Despite the Tramp's heart of gold, this takes money, and presents Chaplin with a huge challenge.
This scenario is the situation that caused Chaplin, the writer and director, the greatest headache while making City Lights. He wanted to find a logical way for the blind girl to believe that the Tramp was rich, but he wasn't satisfied with the original script.
Without an adequate scene to establish this concept, Chaplin felt that the whole film would fall apart. Chaplin even shut down production for a month before the solution struck him--the sound of an expensive car's door slamming shut.
Perhaps the whole concept of using sound was a bit foreign to Chaplin, who is arguably silent film's greatest actor. Indeed, an opening scene can be seen as poking fun of the coming sound technology--the politicians who make dedication speeches humorously "speak" gibberish with kazoo-like sound effects (although this can also be viewed as political satire).
Though Chaplin clearly controls City Lights, Virginia Cherrill received accolades for her work as the blind girl. It was her first role, and predictions for her future success were talked about upon the release of City Lights. She marvelously performs her role, but this is more likely due to Chaplin's direction than it is to her acting ability.
Cherrill's career was short-lived, and Chaplin hired her for her appearance only, figuring he could teach her how to act the part. As revealed in the documentary Unknown Chaplin, Cherrill relates how Chaplin meticulously acted out her every gesture and had her do countless takes until she got it right.
At one point, he also fired her because she wasn't "getting it," only to hire her back for economic reasons--it was too expensive to reshoot her scenes.
This does illustrate Chaplin's genius. Behind City Lights is a great deal of hard, detailed work.
Through his perfectionism, Chaplin demonstrates that he can put a smile on your face and a tear in your eye simultaneously and leave us richer for the experience.