Charlie Chaplin at SIFF – City Lights
If The Tramp’s relationship with the Blind Girl adds to the film’s emotion, then his relationship with The Millionaire (Harry Myers) adds to its hilarity. What a wacky love/hate duo these two make. The very first time we see them together involves The Tramp running into The Millionaire, drunk, attempting to kill himself by tying a rope to his neck and the other end to a stone, and drowning himself in the river. This is a great slapstick scene, as The Tramp does all he can to prevent The Millionaire from committing suicide, only to accidentally have the rope tied to his own neck, and being flung in to the river himself (I’m actually laughing out loud as I recall this scene). From then on, they have a partnership that revolves around The Millionaire wanting to have a good time, and The Tramp begrudgingly tagging along. On The Millionaire’s insistence, they go out for a night on the town, partying at club, partying at home, and so on. I particularly enjoyed the moment when The Millionaire shares a drink with The Tramp, only to pour the alcohol down The Tramp’s pants without either of them knowing. Or another scene during a house party, when The Tramp accidentally swallows a whistle, making the whistling noise every time he burps, leading to a number of dogs coming to his side. What’s great about this friendship is that The Millionaire only recognizes The Tramp while he’s drunk; when he’s sober the next morning he has no idea who The Tramp is, and has him tossed out on the street. I would probably be just as confused and frustrated as The Tramp was with his rich friend.
The boxing scene is probably one of the best moments of comedic timing ever put on screen; it is one of the many scenes we remember most from the movie. To describe it in words is almost not enough to sufficiently translate how well made it is. This is a madcap, cartoony kind of a sequence, but it’s so well done that we go along with its absurdity. After being fired from being a street sweeper, The Tramp quickly enters a boxing match to make a quick dollar for the Blind Girl. We see almost immediately that The Tramp is in over his head, even putting his oversized gloves on backwards. He attempts to gain some good will from another fighter’s lucky rabbit’s foot, but regrets it after seeing the fighter coming back almost unconscious. When the fight gets going, he does everything he can to avoid getting hit by his opponent. The scene doesn’t resemble that of an actual boxing match, and it isn’t supposed to—it’s skewered in a way for comedic purposes. I love how The Tramp bobs back and forth between the referee and his opponent, trying not to get hit. It’s like a little dance between all three men, even going so far as The Tramp switching places so that it looks like the referee is fighting the other guy. Or how he gets tangled in the bell’s rope, and every time he moves rings the beginning or end of each round, or when the two knock each other out simultaneously. This all makes no sense in reality, but somehow works to great, hilarious effect.
Let’s talk about the final scene for a moment. This scene, the confrontation between The Tramp and the Blind Girl, is arguably one of the great emotional moments in all of movie history. It’s hard to find anyone who watches this without feeling touched or moved by its power. We come to learn that The Tramp was able to gain the money that the Blind Girl needed with the help of The Millionaire, but at the same time was arrested and put in jail, mistaken for being a burglar. In his absence, the Blind Girl was able to afford her rent and have her procedure, and is now able to see. The Tramp returns to the street, now broke with clothes tattered, being mocked and teased by local paperboys. He sees her in the window of her flower shop, and she sees him, but she doesn’t recognize who he is. She goes outside to sell him a flower, but he hesitates. He understands that she doesn’t recognize him, and hesitates to reveal himself. The Tramp was afraid of how she would accept him—will she be able to see past his appearance and accept him for the goodness of his heart, or will she resent the fact that he was not the rich person she thought he was? Only when she touches his hand does she realize who he is, and it is at this exact moment where everything comes together, where the true brilliance of the film comes to light. It’s such a moving instance, perfectly acted by both Chaplin and Cherrill. To not be emotional here is to not have a heart. We don’t need anything else past this; Chaplin ends the movie on a cathartic high, an absolutely great and wonderful note.
I remember watching City Lights not too long ago with my mother and a child she was babysitting. My mother had never seen the film before, and complained when she noticed I was watching an old movie that had no dialogue in it. But after sitting down and watching it for a while, both her and the child she was caring for were glued to the screen, laughing during all of the funny parts, and completely absorbed during all of the emotional ones. There we were, three different people of different ages, all enjoying the same movie that was made before any of us were born. After we were done watching it, she turned to me and said “that was a good movie.” I nodded in agreement. And that is perhaps the lasting effect that Chaplin will have for movie audiences: he made films that could be enjoyed by anyone, at any time. A young child can enjoy this movie just as much as an older person would; there is not an age or demographic that this movie can’t reach out to. I can only hope that more and more people will discover (or even rediscover) this and all the other great works that Chaplin made throughout his career. He was truly one of the great artists of the medium.
City Lights will be playing at the SIFF Cinema on Friday, April 15th, 2011 at 7:30pm as part of its weeklong Chaplin Series.