*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*
2012 poll rank: #50 (tied with Ugetsu monogatari and La Jetée)
By 1931, when multi-hypenate talent Charlie Chaplin finished City Lights, Hollywood had undergone the most seismic shift in film history. Al Jolson sang and danced his way into the national consciousness with The Jazz Singer in 1927, the first "talkie" picture, a film with synchronized sound (now the norm). In an instant, silent film stars were rendered obsolete. Theaters across the country began removing their orchestra pits as audiences demanded talkies. Musical extravaganzas became the norm, fully capitalizing on the popularity of sound. And with them came a new breed of movie star: theater actors suddenly made the jump to film, becoming bigger sensations than ever. Meanwhile, silent stars such as Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and others found themselves out of work, their voices becoming liabilities rather than assets to their schtick.
Chaplin, however, stubbornly refused to change. He insisted that City Lights be produced as a silent film, even as the form was virtually extinct. The film underwent multiple changes, beginning production in 1928, but one thing remained the same: it starred the Little Tramp, his incredibly popular comic creation. Even then, though, the film was never guaranteed to be a success; between City Lights and his previous film, The Circus (1928), the United States had fallen into the midst of the Great Depression, in addition to the rise of sound cinema. Nothing was certain for Chaplin.
And yet, the film ended up being one of Chaplin's most successful, both commercially and critically. By asserting himself as an artist in a nearly-extinct art form, Chaplin bloomed into his peak form.
More after the jump.
City Lights finds the Tramp (Chaplin) wandering through an unnamed metropolis, awakening on a statue that's just been unveiled, much to the consternation of the authorities. As he meanders about, he comes across a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill), with whom he instantly falls in love with. She mistakes him for a millionaire, and the Tramp vows to help her any way he can. Later, he stops a drunk millionaire (Harry Myers) from committing suicide, and befriends him, providing him with a way of helping the flower girl. He begins contriving ways to earn enough money to buy her an operation that will give her sight again.
The film is a romantic comedy, through and through. It's distinct, though, for the way in which it balances comedy with real dramatic pathos. Chaplin didn't invent this balance; the works of William Shakespeare are rife with comic relief, for example, and a multitude of comedies have come with dramatic stakes and moments of emotional peril. But in Chaplin's film, these emotions can turn on a dime. The film begins with raunchy (for the time) comic sequence, as the Tramp tries to climb down from the statue but flailing spectacularly. This is followed immediately with a sequence of the Tramp wandering the streets, homeless, before coming across the flower girl. These two scenes establish the pattern for the film, switching between drama and comedy quick enough to induce emotional whiplash.
But the film earns both the laughs and the cries namely through the strength of Chaplin as a performer. He debuted the Tramp in 1914, and in those early days, the Tramp was much more abrasive and aggressive as a character. In fact, in the Tramp's first onscreen appearance ("Mabel's Strange Predicament"), the character is credited as "Drunk," and he exhibits the impish behavior to back up the label. But by the time Chaplin made The Circus, he had softened the character's rougher edges, making him more of a gently-buffoonish clown than an agitated trickster.
This evolution in the Tramp and Chaplin's performance as the character is crucial to the success of City Lights. The Tramp was now a sympathetic character, and as such Chaplin was better able to play up the emotional angle of the film. The Tramp was a believable love interest for the flower girl, and Chaplin is able to leverage a fair amount of class commentary into their relationship without sacrificing the humanity at its core. Similarly, he's amicable enough to befriend the eccentric millionaire, joining him in the high life without stirring up (too much) trouble. Chaplin is able to balance these emotions with just the movement of his body, proving that his pantomime was just as powerful as any "talkie" performance. It's no wonder that, in 1949, critic James Agee described the film's final scene as the "greatest single piece of acting ever committed to celluloid."
In the end, City Lights was an enormous success unlike any other: a silent film flourishing in the then-nascent sound era. It was a testament to Chaplin's abilities as an artist operating at the peak of his powers. Chaplin would go on to make more well-receieved films - namely the silent Modern Times (1937), and sound films The Great Dictator (1940) and Limelight (1952) - but none have maintained the prestige of City Lights. Chaplin transcended technological change to prove that film, no matter what format, had the power to connect with audiences, to make people laugh and cry - sometimes all at once.
On the next "Sight & Sound Sunday": 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)