by Allan Fish
(USA 1931 87m) DVD1/2
Kissing the lucky rabbit’s foot
p/d/w/ed/m Charles Chaplin ph Rollie Totheroh md Alfred Newman art Charles D.Hall
Charles Chaplin (the tramp), Virginia Cherrill (the blind girl), Harry Myers (the drunken millionaire), Florence Lee (grandmother), Allan Garcia (butler), Jean Harlow, Henry Bergman, Albert Austin,
Richard Attenborough’s 1992 film Chaplin was not one of the best biopics ever made, by any stretch of the imagination. Its best moment was a brilliant sequence showing the putting together of a movie in a hotel room to keep it from a wife’s lawyers to which some of the music for City Lights was played as backing. Later on, we see the trouble Chaplin had with the sequence where the girl first comes to believe that the tramp is a millionaire. That it took him so long just shows his patience, the amount of control he had on his productions at that time (only Lean and Kubrick in recent memory could match it) and his gift for using the simple to make things happen.
The story of City Lights is simple; a tramp falls in love with a blind girl and tries to obtain the money to buy her the operation that will cure her sight. In doing so, he befriends a millionaire who is prone to getting drunk, but always forgets who he is when he’s sober, becomes a road sweeper, undertakes a prize fight, gets put in the Big House and finally comes out looking like the o.t.t sort of tramp later described by Eric Blore in Sullivan’s Travels as “suitably seedy, sir” (then referring to Joel McCrea). As a comedy, it doesn’t have the great set-pieces of his other masterworks Modern Times and The Gold Rush (apart from the legendary boxing match, which itself was lifted partly from an earlier Chaplin short The Champion from 1915). That may be why when most people think of Chaplin’s best feature comedies, City Lights gets overlooked. However, of the three it is probably the best, or at least the smoothest in narrative terms. It may also help that City Lights was the first film for which his own music was truly successfully deployed in tandem with the pictures on screen. Indeed it is probably his finest feature film score, the Oscar for Limelight not withstanding.
Of course Chaplin started filming, or at least planning, City Lights immediately after completing The Circus in 1928. But by the time the film was completed, talkies were well and truly established and silent films were only really still being made in Japan and China. That the film was still such a runaway success is a testament to not only his popularity, but to his genius at combining the pathos for which he is famous (and often today criticised) with a sense of balletic timing that is unquestionable, perfectly exemplified in the scene where the blind girl unravels his vest thinking it her ball of wool.
It can be argued that Chaplin was perhaps too fond of his little tramp, the icon who he had basically played uninterrupted since his first appearance in The Tramp in 1915. But City Lights is important for another reason, in that it was really the last of his films to be made without a serious comment being made underneath. Modern Times was his cry out against the onslaught of the machine age; The Great Dictator his public denunciation of a European dictator who shall remain nameless; Monsieur Verdoux about the mass-slaughter of modern war (though perhaps he was seeing how far he could go and still remain popular, though it got some acclaim, he got his answer); whereas Limelight was his love letter to his youth and the old London music hall. If Limelight was his love letter to his heritage, City Lights was his love letter to film and to his fans of the previous generation who still revered him as a God. In view of this, it’s perhaps ironic that, in this reviewer’s eyes, it is the one scene of sheer comic genius, the boxing match, for which I revere it most. It’s a balletic master-class in physical screen comedy, with each movement rehearsed to the nth degree and every fall worth a cheer. He may ultimately lose the fight, after falling down more times than I care to mention, but the tramp himself is a loser to no man.