In the year which saw Michael Hazanavicius’ The Artist waltz away with almost every available accolade, it seems entirely fitting that i finally watch my first ever full-length Charlie Chaplin film. Like the vast majority, i have seen the Little Tramp in action – but only ever in short clips. City Lights offered my first opportunity to watch the silent star in an extended narrative.
Filmed in 1931, City Lights came after the advent of ‘talkies’ – a period of uncertainty and upheaval in Hollywood and a time when many of the stars of the silent era were being usurped by actors with voices. His decision to remain speechless was seen as stubborn at the time – but was justified given the esteem in which City Lights is now held.
Billed as ‘A Comedy Romance In Pantomime’, City Lights tell the tale of Chaplin’s Tramp and his relationships with two fellow outsiders: a blind flower girl and a permanently inebriated suicidal millionaire. There are, of course numerous set-pieces along the way, but primarily the film is a tender tale of the bonds between the tramp and his marginalised friends.
Combining the slapstick for which Chaplin is most famous with some extremely tender moments, City Lights is a surprisingly moving morality tale about the merits of not judging a person on their appearances: this is poignantly and wonderfully illustrated in one of the film’s closing scenes between the Tramp and the flower girl.
Of course, a black and white silent film is not likely to be everyone’s cup of tea and some of the physical comedy looks seriously dated. But anyone with an interest in the traditions of physical comedy (which have lived on through the likes of Buster Keaton, Rowan Atkinson and Jim Carrey) will find much to admire in this nostalgic piece of cinematic history.