Interestingly, two Charlie Chaplin films fall back to back on this list: The Gold Rush and City Lights. I watched them both in a week, in that order, and fell in love with City Lights. It’s charming and self aware, a farcical journey that reads like a love letter to the quickly fading era of silent filmography. I wonder how it would have felt to depression era audiences to follow the loveable tramp they had witnessed in various capers over the last twenty years. I would think there must have been some solace in seeing the mustachioed man revealed sleeping on a statue honoring democracy, knowing he was going to communicate in the language they had come to share. There is magic in nonverbal conversing, a delicate waddle or tweak of an eyebrow can hold a scene’s worth of intimacy. Chaplin invites us in like an old friend, catching us up on his latest romp.
Chaplin exudes incredible control over his body, and at times he appears to pull the marionette strings of his fellow actors. He skips around, defying our expectations or leaning into them, with such omnipotent control over the pacing of each step of the gag that eventually it overpowers the impulse to expect anything at all. There are so many scenes that capture and enlighten the senses, my personal favorites are the drunk driving scene, and of course the boxing scene — where for a while it seems like David will slay Goliath after all.
Chaplin scored the film himself, and the freneticism is amplified by the orchestra. It also helps equalize the material so that it is universally enjoyable by viewers of all ages and languages. There were more than a few times I flashed back to classic Looney Tunes characters and exchanges, a world which so clearly benefited from the Chaplin ethos they were able to expand his aesthetic to a world freed of the laws of physics and reason.
What a wonderful decision it was to make a silent film about a lack of sight, referring to, of course, the blind woman who the Little Tramp sweetly crushes on as she sells flowers in the street. We watch their initial exchanges and the implicit reaching for the flower is all we need to understand that the woman is unable to see. By the end of the film, it’s easy to imagine she would have loved him even if she could see his scrubby, freshly bounced from the statue unveiling ceremony, persona. However, it seems like it might have helped their love story along that she first becomes acquainted with him by way of “his” car. This contrast between a hero we can’t hear falling madly in love with a woman who can’t see him establishes a creative jungle gym for Chaplin to swing through, highlighting his deft comedic talents.
The other character with unreliable vision is the rich man who the Little Tramp saves from a suicide attempt and then befriends. The extent of the friendship, however, is limited to the brief spells in which the rich guy recognizes the Tramp (e.g. when he’s drunk). The sporadic nature of the man’s memory and generosity create an extremely effective mechanism for humor and plot. The film is often touted as a romantic comedy, and it’s hard to say if the blind woman or the rich man formed the more endearing relationship with Chaplin. There is genuine caring between the unlikely duo when the rich man is drunk and can remember his friend, and there is equally genuine disgust when he sobers up and sees the tramp, as most others do, in the clear light of day.
This is a duality that Chaplin understood first hand. In 1931 when City Lights was released, Chaplin was a certifiable American movie star, half a lifetime removed from his London childhood where he was at times orphaned, destitute in a workhouse, or literally singing for his supper. Who else to better understand how upper society views a down on his luck, good natured, rogue than a man who had experienced the distortion of self possible from both extremes?
This is where Chaplin shines brightest, toying with contrast. He shows us a world that most people want to look away from and then buffs off the grime so that even the downtrodden life is revealed to be joyful. Who else could use a noose with such comic gusto? At times I was transported back to Robin Williams stand up routines, delightfully powerless in the capable manipulation of comedic genius. Many artists succumb to barriers which make their work inaccessible to some audiences, and then there the precious few who transcend temporality, geography, and age. Chaplin is timeless because he seizes the viewer and winks at them from cracks in the walls, daring us to trust him.