This year marks the 100th anniversary of when Charlie Chaplin made his film debut and thus introduced the world to one of the most recognized cinematic figures of all-time: The Little Tramp. The character is immediately recognizable regardless if you have seen him in one of his many adventures or not: The baggy pants cinched at the waist, the derby hat perched atop his head, the swinging cane, the awkward, turned-out stance as he walks, and, of course, the iconic mustache. (It's unfortunate that another historical figure also gained notoriety with the same facial hair. Luckily, Chaplin was able to use the similarity to his advantage in the satiric film, The Great Dictator. Which is the only film that earned the star an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.) The Tramp made many appearances throughout the years, but the film most often cited as Chaplin's greatest achievement with the character is 1931's City Lights.
This film was actually my first time experiencing a Charlie Chaplin film, so I had high expectations for it. Not only is Chaplin considered one of the greatest comedians to ever grace the silver screen, but the film itself is regarded as not just Chaplin's best but one of the greatest films ever created. After watching this film and The General last year, I think I've come to the conclusion that the comedy in silent films just isn't something that I appreciate. I find it to be too repetitive (I know, comedy comes in threes) and too reliant on slapstick (which is a type of comedy that I've never been a fan of). What saves me from disliking the film altogether, is the sweetness between Chaplin and the Blind Girl (played by Virginia Cherrill) and an ending that shocked me in how effective it was in its simplicity. But, I'm getting ahead of myself...
As the movie opens, a group of officials are dedicating a new statue in the city square. Despite there not being any spoken dialogue, Chaplin still incorporated sound effectively in the film. As a commentary about the speeches made by people in government (and also in response to those new talking films), the officials make unintelligible noise that sounds a lot like the adults in "Peanuts". As the statue is unveiled, there asleep among the monument is The Little Tramp himself. As he tries to get down off the statue, his pants become stuck on a sword and we get the first of many comedic bits of the film as he struggles to free himself.
Later that day, he first encounters a blind girl selling her flowers. She mistakes him for a man of wealth as he exits a fancy car after trying to avoid a policeman. As the audience we know that the way Chaplin is dressed, one would never mistake him for a man of money. But because she's incapable of seeing him as we do, she's able to look past that to see what he could be.
In the evening along the river, the Tramp saves a drunken millionaire from committing suicide. The man ties a rope around his neck and ties the other end around a large rock that he intends to toss into the river. Somehow the Tramp finds the rope around his own neck and finds himself in the water (several times). As you can suspect, hilarity ensues. Except that the same thing keeps happening over and over again without any variation. If you found it to be funny the first time, it might wear thin the more you see it. Unfortunately, I didn't find it all that funny the first time.
The man is so grateful to be saved that he befriends the Tramp and takes him home. The only problem is that whenever he sobers up he doesn't recognize the Tramp at all. Like the blind girl, the millionaire is never able to see the Tramp the way he really is. For this reason, the Tramp character is seen as the ultimate outsider and loner. Not only does he live outside society's norms without a home or job, but people also see right through him.
Smitten with the girl he met earlier in the film, the Tramp begins to see her on a regular basis. Although, she still believes him to be a wealthy man. He discovers that there's a surgery that could cure her of her blindness and he vows to get the money for her. The Tramp gets a job as a street cleaner. There's a bit where a troop of horses prance by and you wait for the mess to occur for him to clean up. Luckily the horses don't leave anything behind, but an elephant (huh?) comes into view just as they leave. The film is full of gags like this that are juvenile in their humor. There's no easier way to get a laugh than a good poop joke.
After getting fired from his job for being late, the Tramp must make money another way. Which leads us to the comedic centerpiece of the film. The Tramp enters a boxing-match with a 50 dollar cash prize for the winner. He's in over his head, but he tries to hold his own in the ring. There's lots of mistaken identity play as he deftly switches places with the referee several times, confusing his opponent. And he accidentally keeps ringing the bell to signal the end of the round. The entire sequence is about 15 minutes long and serves only to highlight Chaplin's work as a physical comedian. It seems to draw out a little too long for me. Then at the end, he doesn't even win the money and we have to endure another comedic situation of errors.
The Tramp runs into his friend the drunk millionaire who gives him one thousand dollars to give to the blind girl. The only problem is, there are burglars in the house as well (of course, why wouldn't there be?) and the police try to arrest the Tramp for "stealing" the money. Because, wouldn't you know, the millionaire sobers up and doesn't recognize the Tramp. I think you'll notice a pattern in the comedy. Chaplin seems to enjoy returning again and again to the same devices and jokes. But, instead of making them different or building, they are literally just the same thing.
Luckily, he's able to give the blind girl all the money right before he's arrested. After he is released he sees her again. Generally, I'm not one to spoil endings, but this one is so poignant that it made me reconsider my entire opinion of the film and I can't go without discussing it. After the boxing match, I started to get a little bored with the repetitiveness of the film. It never seemed to be going anywhere. But his reunion with the girl once she's gained her sight almost makes it all worth it.
The girl, now able to see and working in a high-end floral shop, is spotted by the Tramp. He looks at her with such astonishment and wonder. For the first time we are seeing honest emotions from him and it awakened something in me as I watched it all unfold. He never thought he'd see her again and now here she is. Looking at his appearance (after leaving jail his clothes are even more tattered), she offers him some money and flower. But as she touches his hand she recognizes the Tramp as her benefactor. "You see now", he says. And she replies simply and heartfelt, "Yes, I can see now."
It all sounds pretty cheesy, but Chaplin and Cherill pull it all off in a way that makes it touching and heartbreaking. What I love most about it, is how still it all is. There's minimum movement and everything is expressed in their faces and eyes. (It's like Norma Desmond said, "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!") And all the mugging Chaplin has been doing for the last hour and a half melts away to the last image of him grinning at the girl. Its a smile filled with hope and fear (can she really care for him the way he does her?), but it's also a look of love. It's a moment that feels so real and perfect that although I hadn't cared for the rest of the film as much, the perfection of this moment made me reevaluate the whole film and appreciate it for the magic it could create. Even 100 years later, Charlie Chaplin and the Tramp can still surprise you.