Finally, I return to Chaplin in a silent!
Written By: Charles Chaplin, Harry Clive & Harry Crocker
Directed By: Charles Chaplin
For my money, City Lights is Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece, says the man who has yet to see the original silent of The Gold Rush. It’s tough to peg down the specifics of why that is the case, because while most great movies speak to me on some level, City Lights wasn’t profound on that level. It’s a very simple movie, it is well made, but what makes it such a great movie?
It’s funny, that’s why I love it at least. It’s not laugh out loud funny, although there are a few times when I was caught doing just that, but rather City Lights has a restrained, almost subdued humor. Even in the quiet moments of City Lights something that I found to be funny in some small way was happening. Look at the scene when the Tramp first gets drunk with the Eccentric Millionaire. What they are obviously doing, getting drunk, is funny in its own right. But, at the same time one small thing is happening in the background that I found incredibly funny. The Millionaire is pouring champagne down the Tramp’s pants, and at first it’s so minor that you don’t pick up on it. But then you do and you realize it’s been happening all scene long and that adds a sustained humor to the scene.
There are lots of tiny moments that make City Lights so much fun to take in. When the Tramp tries to eat a bald guys head because he thinks its the plate of food that was just in front of him. That is succeeded by the whistle gag, a small thing, but funny. To go along with the tiny moments there are a few hysterical moments that act as the crescendo of the humor. The best of these has to be Chaplin as a boxer. The moments leading up to his match are funny enough, but once he gets in that ring I was knocked out by laughter. Oh, I slay myself with the puns.
At the same time that the humor is guiding the picture, Chaplin manages to insert some subtle human moments. Those moments are what most separate Chaplin silents from Chaplin talkies. They can be taken as obvious, and they are, but at the same time they are subtle and slick social commentary. The idea of taking the time to do something for someone other than yourself is obvious, but it subtly leads into the idea of life in the city being more reckless. The city moves faster, people are easier to take advantage of and you have to get what you can out of every situation in the city. That is the prevalent theory at least, but through his story Chaplin puts forth the idea that man can be better than they are. That people can do things for others out of the kindness of their heart. An obvious sentiment, but Chaplin uses subtlety to get there.
There you have it, that’s why I view City Lights as Chaplin’s masterpiece. It’s consistently funny, with a few laugh out loud moments, but plenty of sustained humor. City Lights also touches on social issues and does so in smart and succinct fashion. City Lights is a simple movie, but it is simply perfect. See what I was talking about earlier, I really do slay myself sometimes, oh, the hilarity, the pure hilarity!