The silent era of features were coming to a close by the end of the late 1920’s and the popularity of the sound feature was in full bloom by 1931. Charlie Chaplin on the other hand continued to pursue the silent features knowing his Tramp character would not transfer into the new era of cinema. The Tramp character relies on pure slapstick and visual gags, not spoken word humor. Chaplin decided to give his Tramp character another silent feature (though far from the Tramp’s last appearance since Modern Times would be made after) to see if it would succeed with audiences. Preview screening did not go over well, giving Chaplin little hope in the feature that lingered until its initial release. What happened after was something no one thought a silent feature could pull off during that time…it succeeded and widely regarded as not only the finest outing of the Tramp character, but one of the finest moments in Chaplin’s career next to The Great Dictator.
1931’s City Lights sends the beloved Tramp on a whirlwind adventure of him pursuing a blind flower girl, played by Virginia Cherill, and befriends a drunk millionaire, played by Harry Myers. The Tramp learns along the way that he may have feelings for this woman and goes out of his way to help her, all while dealing with the wild and down and out nature of the drunk millionaires escapades.
City Lights is actually quite as simple of a feature as that brief summary because of the way it flows. The film plays like a series of vignettes that are connected by the pursue of the girl. The Tramp goes through being a street sweeper, getting drunk and nearly fighting a dancer and goes toe to toe in the boxing ring in order to get a decent if not sizable pay cut. The film itself is a marvel of silent comedy with precise timing and off the wall humor that only Chaplin or Buster Keaton could have provided. The boxing match is the true highlight with Chaplin literally flying though the air to deliver a blow, the referee getting knocked out and just pure animated nonsense.
The true heart of this is how tremendous the romance is between the blind flower girl and the Tramp. She does not know who the man is, but assumes he is a wealthy gentlemen due to his kindness and the sound of a large car door slamming. She also knows he is more than that with a heart of gold and caring nature that is boundless, something certain rich gentlemen at that time were not. The Tramp knows she is blind, but adores her for being the nice and sweet in nature girl she is. He does everything just to make her happy and proud. Their affection for one another is so powerful in its simplicity that when the Tramp goes out of his way to deliver the ultimate romantic gesture, the ending creates a perfect impact to the hopeless romantic in all of us. Personally, I was crying for a good minute or two due to it.
Chaplin’s score for the film guides the feature along to great heights with the leitmotif of the blind flower girl being the highlight. It uses with bliss and hopefulness to create an aura about her being. It is marvelous what a simple piece of music can do. That is what makes this film great; it’s simplicity. All the film relies on is the acting and the music to set it apart from the rest and capturing that simplicity makes it grounded in a reality that feels genuine. City Lights is one of the greats for being simple and being a utter and complete joy.
Next week, Film A Week decides to explore film on the small screen by getting into another time travel voyage. This time around, we join the eighth regeneration of The Doctor (Paul McGann) and hop in his TARDIS as he takes on his arch nemesis The Master (Eric Roberts) in Doctor Who: The Movie (1996).
Film A Week 37: Doctor Who: The Movie (1996)
Saturday, September 21st