Both Hilarious and Touching
JLFM - wrote on 05/15/13
One of my biggest movie-related regrets that I hadn't seen a single Charlie Chaplin film. The director and actor has received massive acclaim, and is still considered today to be one of the world's greatest directors. And yet, I had not seen any of his films. In fact, I had seen relatively few silent films at all. However, if Chaplin's other work is even nearly as good as City Lights, I will not hesitate to see his many other films.
Often considered one of Chaplin's best films, City Lights is the story of a young tramp (portrayed by Charlie Chaplin), who befriends a drunk millionaire. The tramp uses resources provided by the millionaire to give gifts to a young, blind girl, whom the tramp has fallen in love with. Things are a bit complicated, though, as when the millionaire is sober, he does not remember ever befriending the tramp.
Due to my limited exposure to films of this era, this review may seem a bit more pointed towards the art of silent film in general, as opposed to this specific film.
At times, City Lights plays like a big cartoon. Slap stick and quirky situations saturate this film, insuring that there is never a dull moment. This is not sophisticated comedy, and it does not take a sophisticated mind to enjoy. In fact, this is likely one of the reasons for City Light's success; it's accessibility.
Chaplin arranges a large number of very elaborate humorous sketches. A masterpiece in comic timing, City Lights is an absolute delight to watch. There are dozens of memorable scenes. If you're not smiling at any given point during the film, you're probably laughing.
Actually, I take back what I just said. For even though City Lights is a comedy, it's also a romance. Very touching, and even tear-jerking at times, City Lights proves that it's just as effective as pulling heart strings as it is at tickling funny bones.
The romance succeeds for a number of reasons. For one, we feel invested in the characters and their story. The film is only 82 minutes, which doesn't leave much time for the characters to be developed, and because City Lights is a silent film, only important lines are shown as subtitles. Everything else is silent. And yet, the characters are defined and layered, some more subtly than others.
The romance also works due to the excellent acting. Charlie Chaplin quite literally makes this movie. His both hilarious and touching performance as the tramp is sincere and humorous. Virginia Cherrill portraying the blind girl is another great performance, and Harry Myers effectively portrays the eccentric millionaire.
I also believe the romance actually benefits from not having dialogue. I say this dialogue is the number one thing that kills a good romance in a film. You could have the best actors and actresses in the world, but with bad dialogue, comes bad romance. By eliminating dialogue, City Lights also eliminates this common issue in modern film that's not just limited to romantic flicks.
The score (also composed by Charlie Chaplin, as well as Arthur Johnston) is delightful. Boasting a large number of catchy and clever tunes, the score is both diverse and entertaining. Music has a much more important role in silent films than in today's "talkies," but Chaplin and Johnston have no problem here.
Not all the sketches work as well as others, and the heavy slapstick may not meet everyone's tastes, but City Lights is a brilliant film that succeeds on both an emotional level, and a comedic one. Funnier and touching than most of today's films, City Lights isn't perfection, nor is it without flaw, but the sincerity and simplicity in which the story is presented is simply beautiful. I look forward to watching more of Chaplin's films in the near future.