While he was undoubtedly a cinematic genius, Charlie Chaplin was prone to a maudlin sentimentality at times that damaged movies that were otherwise near-perfect in every way. City Lights, perhaps the greatest of his movies, fortunately avoids emotional excess, even though the seeds from which it could spring are there in the story of a blind flower girl with whom Charlie’s little tramp falls in love. Thankfully, this strand of the plot provides the motive for Chaplin finding himself in a series of unlikely situations.
As usual, the little tramp is down on his luck. Mistaken for a wealthy man by a pretty, blind flower seller (Virginia Cherrill), the tramp is instantly besotted and spends his last penny on one of her flowers. While a tentative friendly relationship slowly develops between the tramp and the flower seller, he also cultivates another friendship with a drunken manic-depressive millionaire (Harry Myers) who, while extravagantly generous while inebriated, fails to recognise the tramp at all while sober.
From these two simple strands, Chaplin crafts a truly wonderful piece of cinema that is by turns breathlessly funny and touching. Nobody could do drunk the way Chaplin did,
every move a carefully timed exaggeration of natural motion. His tramp had come a long way from the early days, but still retained an element of belligerence when drunk which Chaplin was careful to deflect in order to keep his character wholly sympathetic. The advent of talking pictures could have proved problematic for the tramp, and might have provided an insurmountable obstacle to others, but such was Chaplin’s confidence he simply chose to ignore it. In fact, he went one better by ridiculing it, opening City Lights with some pompous dignitaries delivering a garbled, unintelligible speech at the unveiling of a new statue. When the veil concealing the statue is eventually dropped it reveals Chaplin’s tramp sleeping soundly in the statue’s arms. The metaphor is obvious, and Chaplin makes it even more pointed by placing his nose against a waving marble hand in obvious scorn.
Great comedy is timeless, which is why the likes of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd continue to receive our attention and remain so popular today. While Chaplin may have tended towards sentimentality, that was because he understood the themes and emotions that were universal, and which would strike a chord in any corner of the world. As a man he was flawed, but as a comic filmmaker he was unrivalled, and we can only be thankful that so much of his work still exists today. Great stuff.