As we work through Charlie Chaplin’s directorial work in chronological order, we now come to his greatest masterpiece. Yes, that’s my opinion, but it’s hardly an unusual one. City Lights may come as close to a perfect comedy as you can find.
I’ve already written about City Lights in a 2013 Blu-ray review, so I’ll cover the story quickly. (I rewatched the movie from that same Blu-ray before writing this article.) Charlie, very much a homeless tramp, falls in love with a beautiful, blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill). She thinks he’s a millionaire, and Charlie keeps the charade up. He also saves the life of a real millionaire (Harry Myers), a suicidal drunk who befriends and helps Charlie when blotto but doesn’t recognize him when sober.
If you’ve read my earlier Chaplin Diary entries, you may remember that Chaplin, in his short films, occasionally set aside The Tramp to play a rich drunk. He never played that character in features (although he does occasionally get drunk), but in City Lights, he gives Myers the part. The actor, who’s largely forgotten outside of City Lights, works with Chaplin in perfect synchronization. In one exceptional bit, Charlie keeps lighting the millionaire’s cigar, thinking it’s his own, and is then confused that his stogy is unlit. The timing, with Myers’ cigar going into Chaplin’s mouth at the exactly right second, is as beautiful as a fine, Swiss watch.
In his first two features, A Woman of Paris and The Gold Rush, Chaplin seemed to be working out his relationship with his mother. In The Circus, he appeared to be dealing with his own demons. In City Lights, he faces his greatest creation: Charlie, AKA, The Tramp. Every aspect of The Little Fellow (Chaplin’s own name for the character) comes into play. He’s desperate. He’s a gentleman, but he hates authority. He behaves like an art aficionado while peaking naughtily at a nude statue. He’s chivalrous to his love, but he’s also duplicitous. He knows every trick for surviving on the street.
City Lights often echoes the shorts. As in The Champion, he goes into the boxing ring. And as he did with Fatty Arbuckle in The Rounders, he gets soused with a friend in a nightclub and causes trouble for people at nearby tables. But he puts a new twist on every situation.
It took Chaplin more than three years to make City Lights (he would never again make more than two movies a decade), and those three years saw Hollywood’s biggest revolution. When he started working on City Lights, sound movies were a rare gimmick, and only one – The Jazz Singer – had a little bit of dialog. By the time he was editing City Lights in 1930, the American silent film was, for all intents and purposes, dead.
City Lights was Chaplin’s first sound film, but in all but the most technical considerations, it’s a silent. It contains no dialog but plenty of intertitles (too many in my opinion). Stylized sound effects carry two scenes – neither of which would have worked in a true silent. Music takes up the rest of the soundtrack, and Chaplin composed the score. Being the film’s writer, director, producer, and star was not enough; now he was also the film’s composer.
And it’s a beautiful score, hitting each scene with just the right note. Of course, it’s impossible to tell how much that score was improved by Arthur Johnston’s musical arrangement and Alfred Newman’s musical direction.
Chaplin scored all of his sound films. In decades to come, he would also go back and score the truely silent films that he controlled (the ones covered in chapters 8 through 13 of this Diary). But he never wrote a score as good as the one he wrote for City Lights.
On the other hand, he never again made a film as good as City Lights. He would make six more films over the next 36 years, and for the most part it was a trip downhill.