Previously published for Front Room Cinema in 2012...
In an era when sound was fast becoming the favoured method of Hollywood directors, Chaplin took a calculated risk with City Lights, deciding to persevere with another silent comedy despite the overwhelming public demand for 'talkies'. It had been three years since the success of The Circus and I am sure that no-one expected Chaplin's next film to better every film he had directed previously to become what is arguably his finest work. It pains me to think that this film was not even considered for an Oscar nomination when looking at the films that won awards in 1931, but such is the way with awards ceremonies that truly great films can sometimes be overlooked. Even though it had no recognition from the Academy, the fact that it was one of Chaplin's first films to be released on Blu-ray speaks volumes and indicates that it is universally adored by fans of Chaplin's most successful persona, the tramp.
When City Lights begins, the all encompassing tagline 'A comedy romance in pantomime' clearly states Chaplin's intentions and sums up the films mood impeccably well. These days, the genre of romantic comedy can conjure up images of dreadful movies overwrought with cliches and completely lacking in plot but back back in the golden era of cinema, the combination of romance and comedy often led to critical and commercial success for all parties involved. These were more innocent times when on screen romances were hinted at but rarely shown in much detail, and a single gesture or reaction was capable of portraying so much more than a hackneyed line of dialogue or an all too revealing promiscuous scene.
Visual comedy is timeless and it is thanks to Chaplin's inherent comic genius that City Lights remains as hilarious today as it must have been on its initial release over eighty years ago, if not even more so. There are so many hilarious scenes that it is a genuine struggle to pick a favourite, although I don't think it gets much better than when the Tramp mistakes a person's bald head for a plate of food. Yes it sounds ridiculous, as is often the case with Chaplin's films, but his incredible ability as a slapstick actor enables him to find humour in the most unexpected places. Take for instance his scene in the boxing ring; the first time I watched the Tramp's attempt at boxing I was in stitches, and it never fails to bring a smile to my face. The scene features such wonderful choreography and inspired humour but more importantly it remains relative to the story, and the whole film has a seamless feeling to it which indicates that the comedy was created around the story rather than creating humorous scenes and joining them together to make a script. This my friends, is the work of a comedy genius.
So much has been written about the film's finale that it feels right to use the cliche 'nothing can be
said which hasn't been said before'. For the benefit of those who have not seen City Lights I will avoid discussing it in any depth, but my God what an iconic and memorable ending. When a film is full of humour we grow to love the characters so much more that when a dramatic event unfolds we become completely absorbed in their successes or failures, and I challenge anyone not to be moved by the ending of City Lights.
Those new to the world of black and white films and raring to explore the classics will be blown away by how incredibly gifted Chaplin was in his heyday and those who would rather stick to films with colour and sound should step outside their comfort zone and take a risk on what is one of my all time favourite films. The Artist has shown that people are willing to take a chance on silent films and I just hope that this leads to a resurgence in the popularity of some of the all time classics that can easily compete with the best of today's cinema.