In the 1910s, the world was introduced to Chaplin’s tramp, who would go on to be possibly the first recognizable character the film world ever knew.
Starring in numerous amounts of shorts, Chaplin later made full length movies with his famous mustached character: So famous, even Adolf Hitler (who was only four days younger than Chaplin) was said to have based his mustache off of the tramp.
It should be noted that when Chaplin was making his masterpiece City Lights, the cinema was thrown into a loop when, in 1927, The Jazz Singer became the first “talkie” (with the first line spoken “Wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothing yet!”). The days of the silent picture were quickly becoming numbered. Still, Chaplin insisted that his next film be without word. His response (at least at the time) to talkies can be clearly seen in the opening moments of City Lights, where those speaking are basically the sound of kazoos. It would not be until 1940’s The Great Dicatator when the world would finally hear the little tramp speak (unless you count the random uttered syllables in 1936’s Modern Times).
All that said, City Lights is, to put it bluntly, flawless in every sense of the word. It is the perfect silent film for those who don’t watch silent films, and is a perfect introduction to anyone interested in Charlie Chaplin (he also directed, wrote, and composed for the film). Like most people, those in the city ignore the tramp, treating him as simply an outcast. The only person who seems to communicate with him is a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) who lives with her grandma (who never is around when the tramp is). True, he does become friends with a millionaire (Harry Myers), but only when the rich man is drunk. When sober, he, like all the others, sees a worthless tramp.
The story is driven by the incentive of what is in all of the movies featuring the tramp: His desire for adventure. All of Chaplin’s films are filled with scenes that, nearly a century later, still hold up. City Lights has some of his best: a dinner he “thinks” is noodles, saving someone from suicide, taking jobs only the truly desperate would take, reckless driving (“Am I driving?”), and one of the best boxing matches ever committed to celluloid.
At the core, however, is his relationship with the blind flower girl. While she has mistaken him for a rich man (much of his money is given to him by his drunk friend), she still clearly responds greatly to his utter kindness. This is shown mainly when it is discovered that there is a cure for her blindness, and he does all he can to get the money needed.
All this leads to possibly the most beautiful ending in the history of film. If you have seen the movie, you know why tears are inevitable: I almost get teary-eyed just thinking of it. I won’t ruin it for anyone, only to say that the exact place where Chaplin ends it is pure perfection.
Parents, since this was in the 1930s, there is little to worry about here. I have tried this on some of the younger people in my life, and not one was disappointed.
Of all the film theories I have had bubbling in my brain over the years, perhaps the most potent is that every film character has a bit of the tramp in them. Chaplin’s immortal tramp was possibly the first to ever show emotion, insecurities, desire, frustration, happiness, fear, exhaustion, rage, doubt, and compassion. In other words, the little tramp was the first to show what it means to be human, and made the world see it. He was at the beginning of humanism on the big screen.
The personal life of Chaplin was indeed riddled with controversy: From his political leanings to the fact that nearly all four of his wives were significantly younger than him (his fourth and final wife, Oona, was 36 years younger than Chaplin). When the House of Unamerican Activities Committee was formed to find out if Hollywood had sympathizers with Communists, Chaplin was one of many who did not want to testify.
However, since he was not an American citizen (he was born in Britain, believe it or not), he was not allowed reentry back into the US. It seemed the tramp had lost all form of support from those he worked with.
For twenty years, he stayed in Switzerland. There was one exception to this: In 1972, he was allowed to go to the 44th Academy Awards to receive an Honorary Award (click here to see a glimpse).
It was clear that all hatchets were buried, because when he got on stage, he got a standing ovation that lasted nearly twelve minutes.