Overview: Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp gives us his most moving and sincere adventure as he looks to win the affection of a blind flower vendor by hiding from her his low social status. 1931; 121 Minutes
Vintage Chaplin: The Tramp’s grace and dexterity punctuate his trademark slapstick physical comedy. In scenes like the that of the boxing match, Chaplin displays the poise of a ballerina. His waddle is poetic. His falls are mainstage events. In Chaplin’s ability to express through exaggerated expression, we see the infant stages of film comedy. The camera outlines for us its favorite subjects of human description—the stage ready eyes, the uncontrollably sincere mouth. Filmed and released a few years after introduction of the talkie, Chaplin refused to include voices in his picture, insisting that the advent of sound tainted the purity of movies. While time ultimately proved him wrong on this front, his movie suffers nothing to the viewpoint, as the orchestral score expresses as much as any dialogue or monologue could have hoped to accomplish.
The Fairest of His Ladies: No one ever occupied the spotlight with Chaplin as successfully as Virginia Cherril. No onscreen partner ever shared as poignant a chemistry. As earnest as Chaplin is in his romantic comedic pursuits, Cherril proves to be an honest match in her adoration, optimism, and hope. Chaplin was always ready to make a statement about the dangers of our culture growing more and more interested in materialistic pursuits, and his viewpoint came across at its most effective when that cultural materialism manifested as the obstacle for these two hopeful lovers.
The Iconic and Eternal Ending: The final scene of City Lights is arguably the most iconic of all film images, and deservedly so. No picture has captured compassion and affection like the close-in on Chaplin’s hopeful and embarrassed eyes. No gesture displays the insecurity of love more clearly than the Tramp’s nervous nail bite. While the resolution to their love story is uncertain, the power of this moment is not. If anyone ever argues that movies can not be miracles, point them to Chaplin’s City Lights and make them watch through the end of this scene.
Overall: City Lights established an early standard of greatness, the first instant of film timelessness. It was a declaration of the art form, and decades of age and film progression have only strengthened its reputation as being endlessly watchable.