About halfway through City Lights, I realized most of the gags repeat. Especially when it’s Chaplin and his de facto sidekick, Harry Myers. But instead of making the bits seem rote, the repeat value just makes them funnier. There are some differences in how the jokes work, but not very much; Chaplin also lays into the repeat imagery. In the third act, it all makes sense when there’s finally a different reaction to a repeated narrative bit. The way Chaplin brings it all together is sublimely delightful.
The film opens with the most outdoor sequence in the film, with Chaplin—playing the Tramp—interfering with some city occasion. What sets it apart—besides people having audible (but distorted) voices in an otherwise silent picture. There’s diegetic sound and a musical score (by Chaplin), but all the dialogue’s in intertitles. Immediately after the opening scene, Chaplin meets beautiful blind girl flower seller Virginia Cherrill. He’s smitten with her and buys a flower—she doesn’t realize he’s a tramp; she thinks he’s a rich guy.
Luckily for the Tramp, he almost immediately makes the acquaintance of actual rich guy Myers. Well, luckily, in the big picture sense. In the immediate picture sense, Chaplin and Myers have a very disconcerting friendship (from Chaplin’s perspective, anyway). Myers is a drunk; his wife has run off to Europe and isn’t coming back. He’s a wild man when drunk, but when he sobers up, he can’t remember he’s made a new pal in Chaplin. So Chaplin keeps getting the boot.
But whenever he’s got Myers’s inebriated support, Chaplin thinks about how he can help Cherrill, which cements the idea he’s wealthy (he’s driving Myers’s Rolls Royce). Just as someone in Switzerland (maybe Fredonia) develops a cure for blindness, Cherill’s grandmother (Florence Lee) gets a letter from the landlord. Pay up or get kicked out. Tomorrow.
Will Chaplin be able to keep Myers drunk enough, long enough, to be able to hit him up for some cash? Cherill and Lee owe twenty-two dollars; Myers carries thousand dollar bills (and some hundreds, I think). So it’s not like it’d be a problem. Except whenever Myers gets the slightest bit sober, he completely forgets bestie Chaplin.
Myers’s unreliablity leads to some occasionally drastic measures for Chaplin, such as a fantastic boxing match. Chaplin fights badass Hank Mann, whose slightest slap can knock out a real boxer—so, Chaplin’s in real danger. And the third act’s pretty dark. City Lights isn’t a tragedy overall, but it’s mostly a tragedy. The opening bit doesn’t have much tragic subtext, but pretty much everything else is soaked in it. There’s a suicide attempt—with nooses around the neck are one of Chaplin’s repeat sight “gags”—there’s destructive drinking, which the Tramp pretty early on acknowledges is way too much. But he’s got to get drunk to get to be friends with Myers.
Most of the comedy set pieces in the first half involve their drunken carousing. They’re hilarious together too. Chaplin and Myers have great timing together; Myers’s performance as constantly stupefied drunk is superlative. A lot of it is Chaplin’s direction. He’s got just the right pacing for Myers to slowly realized what’s going on in the scene and then rush to get involved (making things worse). Except the Tramp’s rarely asking him for help in these scenes. It’s usually just Myers barging in. It’s always very funny.
Then the third act’s emotionally rending, as the Tramp finally seems to be on the way to a win—or at least not a loss—only to fail thanks to cruel people. It’s a lot, especially since Chaplin also breaks one of his repeat cycles to make the narrative change happen. Even with the finale involving another repeat cycle, the only way to know if the move will work is to do it. And they work beautifully both times. So good.
Chaplin’s performance is exquisite. The Tramp’s navigating hostile, turbulent waters in hanging out with Myers. Then he’s basically got a courtship arc with Cherrill, with her blindness being integral to Chaplin being able to pull off the ending.
Myers is also great. Not so much when he’s sober. He’s fine when he’s sober—like he’s doing the part, and it’s good—but when he’s drunk, he really gets to have some fun. Cherrill doesn’t get any fun. She gets small joys, usually with caveats related to her blindness (and poverty—if Cherrill had any money, the blindness wouldn’t be such a detriment to her success). But she does get a full character arc, something no one else in the film besides the Tramp is even in the picture long enough to attempt. Myers doesn’t get a character arc, for instance.
City Lights is a fantastic mix of slapstick and sincerity. Chaplin finds the heart in every situation—Myers’s alcoholism is a reaction to intense depression—without ignoring the various unjustifiable cruelties people inflict on one another.
It’s a lovely, singular motion picture.