City Lights: A Comedy Romance in Pantomime
WRITTEN / PRODUCED / DIRECTED by Charles Chaplin
ORIGINAL MUSIC by Charles Chaplin
CINEMATOGRAPHY by Gordon Pollock & Roland Totheroh
Sometimes I think The Gold Rush should be on this list. Sometimes I think maybe Modern Times. And of course there’s The Great Dictator. Shorts? The Cure, The Rink, The Tramp, One A.M., The Immigrant, Shoulder Arms. Chaplin made 33 two-reelers just in 1914.
But none of them have the heart of City Lights. If you just outline the plot, it sounds silly. A blind girl mistakes Charlie, the tramp, for a millionaire. He keeps the illusion going. He manages to get the money for an operation to restore her eyesight, goes to prison, emerges even more raggedy-ass than he was; really down and out. He encounters her. Will she recognize him?
She says, “You?”
He nods. He says “You can see?”
“Yes. I can see.”
Roger Ebert thinks the smile is one of acceptance. I think the smile is at least as enigmatic as the Mona Lisa. The camera lingers on it a moment, and I am never sure just what she is thinking. Of course, it’s tough to see, because my eyes are always full or tears at that moment.
Okay, Chaplin could be hopelessly sentimental, and so can I. As always with Charlie, the movie is so much more than that. It contains some of his best slapstick, funny situations, physical comedy, sly observations, even satire. The sound era was already in full swing, but he deliberately made it silent, and probably only Chaplin could have gotten away with it in 1931. But he was right.