City Lights is a product of the closing days of the silent film era. By the time it was released, talking films were in the theaters. Would that half the talkies to come were masterpieces as rewarding as this one! This episode in the tales of the Little Tramp displays Chaplin’s extraordinary skills as actor, writer, director, and composer of the score. The Tramp is everyman, funny and sad, exhibiting Chaplin’s unparalleled ability to observe the vagaries of human behavior. Whether battling with a strand of spaghetti, getting impaled from behind on a statue’s sword, or coming to the rescue of an apache dancer, Chaplin’s screen foibles are of asort with which any viewer can identify. And he knew exactly when he had made his point, always moving on to his next bit of funny business without overplaying his hand, always propelling his story forward.
The other roles in City Lights are stock characters, there to be foils for the very real tramp. With Chaplin, even stock characters can be memorable. Here we have the blind flower girl with whom he falls in love, played by beautiful Virginia Cherrell (Cary Grant’s first wife), the suicidal rich man who befriends the tramp when drunk, only to forget him when sober, the crooked fighter who leads the tramp into what must be the funniest boxing scene ever filmed.
We laugh and we are touched and we come away a little wiser about the human condition. Nobody before or since has combined slapstick and poignancy to make such a perfectly timed, perfectly modulated entertainment.