Released in 1931, City Lights is considered one of the definitive “Little Tramp” films out of Charlie Chaplin’s career. It’s also hugely popular with the AFI, making several of their lists, including both versions of their top 100, and the top spot of on their romantic comedies list.
I’ve watched several Charlie Chaplin films by this point, so I was eager to check this one out. At the same time, though, I have to admit to suffering a little bit of “Tramp fatigue” at this point — there’s a certain sameness to a lot of Chaplin’s films. But even with that, City Lights is a fine film.
In City Lights, Chaplin’s Tramp becomes smitten with a beautiful young flower vendor played by Virginia Cherill. Like a lot of Chaplin’s films, the role is primarily just “girl who is sweet and pretty”, but Cherill (in her debut role) does get to exercise her acting skills a bit more than, say, Edna Purviance. Unlike many of the girls in Chaplin’s shorter works, Cherill has a little more to do than just look pretty, as her character is blind. She has to react to what’s going on around her while seeming to not be able to see exactly what that is.
The Tramp, infatuated with her, wants to help her out. There’s a Viennese doctor who is able to restore her eyesight, but she doesn’t have the money for it — and of course, the Tramp, is, well, a tramp. But his fortunes and hers start to turn around when he saves a mercurial millionaire (Harry Myers) from committing suicide and is taken into his graces.
The film is filled with comedy of a few different styles. Being a “Little Tramp” film, it of course has a lot of slapstick. The sequence where he gets a job as a street sweeper sets up a great visual gag. The troubles he has in saving the millionaire are easy to see coming, but are no less funny for this. And everywhere he goes once the millionaire introduces him to high society adds the opportunity for more physical humor. But there’s a human element to the humor as well. The millionaire’s butler, Al Ernest Garcia, dislikes the little Tramp, apparently believing him to be taking advantage of his master. His efforts to keep the Tramp out of the mansion, and the Tramp’s efforts to stay in, are complicated by the whiplash mood swings of the millionaire. When he’s drunk, he alternates between despondency over his broken marriage and exuberant delight at his new friend. When he’s sober… he doesn’t even remember the little Tramp.
What makes this film special in light of its siblings in Chaplin’s filmography is that it gives a little more personality to the Tramp than just an amiable bungler. That’s still the core of his personality, but we see that while he’s a shameless opportunist, he’s also a terrific optimist. He saves the millionaire not out of any hope for reward, but because he really is that nice of a person and can’t fathom why anybody would want to end their life. Given the difference in their stations, the initial meeting between him and the millionaire makes a powerful statement about contentment. Indeed, the Tramp never seems all that unhappy about his own poverty — the only reason it seems to trouble him is because he doesn’t have the money to help somebody else. And it’s easy to feel sorrow for him when he realizes that, once she gets her operation, the flower vendor will see him for what he really is, and not the wealthy benefactor that he has so far seemed to be. This doesn’t deter him, of course.
In a way, I wish I had seen this film first — or at least, earlier on in my Chaplin viewing. I’d been growing a little tired of the little Tramp. But City Lights is a great reminder of what makes the Tramp a great character. He’s just a likeable little fellow.