Arguably one of Charlie Chaplin’s best-known films, City Lights is the tale of Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” falling in love with a blind woman whom he meets on a streetcorner, as she sells flowers to earn money. He is passing by just as a wealthy businessman is getting out of a car nearby, and she hears the car door slam – and mistakes him for the person who got out of it.
And…it was cute, but just left me….eh.
I am cringing typing that, because it makes me sound like such a cynic. The film enjoys a reputation as a cinematic masterpiece, with critics and filmmakers alike heaping praise upon it over the years. The final scene has been copied, the audiences have swooned, and Chaplin himself apparently thought this was one of his best works. And the arc of the love story therein is a sweet one, and there are some fantastically-choreographed moments of physical comedy.
But – dammit, the plot is just so thin, and some of that physical comedy is just so slapped in. Like the very opening scene – we open in a city park where a crowd has gathered for the dedication of a public statue, and when the M.C. lifts the veil covering the statue we discover that the “Little Tramp” is sleeping there. Which of course shocks the crowd and angers the dignitaries; the Little Tramp is also surprised, and proceeds to climb off the statue and take his leave. But “climbing off the statue” takes up a full two minutes of slapstick, as he tips his hat to each figure on the statue, catches his pants on things, gets confused about the best path down…I mean, it’s entertaining, but it could also have been cut from the film without the story suffering any ill effect whatsoever.
Shortly after he window-shops as he strolls through town – and we never learn what town – and stops to study a statue in a shop window, not noticing a trap door in the sidewalk directly behind him. And for two minutes he stops and studies the statue, narrowly missing the trap door opening and shutting behind him each time. It’s brilliant timing on Chaplin’s part, but….it feels kind of schtick-y.
Other bits of schtick at least serve the story better. One ongoing subplot is the Little Tramp’s unexpected friendship with a millionaire, whom he meets by the city docks when he sees the man trying to kill himself. Chaplin convinces him to stay alive, and the man – who is incidentally wildly drunk – agrees, and brings his “new friend” home for a drink – but then declares they should go out on the town. There’s some fantastic fish-out-of-water schtick here, like a carefully-timed sequence involving Chaplin, costar Harry Myers, and a pair of cigars.
Another sequence later in the film sees our Tramp try his hand at prize fighting in an effort to win some quick money; the Tramp’s efforts to stay just out of reach of his opponent were fantastically choreographed.
Then again – there’s a lengthy sequence before the match, as the Little Tramp is in the locker room with the guy who’s due to be his opponent. The Tramp is trying to be friendly to convince his rival not to rough him up too much, but Chaplin’s body language in this scene comes across as strangely flirtatious – simpering smile, crossed legs, hands demurely folded. I wasn’t sure whether he was trying to do some kind of three-dimensional chess thing and seduce the guy out of fighting him.
So I dunno. The plot is sweet, the physical comedy made me chuckle in places, but the whole thing just didn’t seem to really hang together as a full story so much as it was a small framework hobbling under the weight of bits of extraneous “funny stuff.”