City Lights is the story of a tramp (played by Charlie Chaplin of course) who finds himself in love with a blind and poor flower saleswoman and at the same time accidentally befriends a suicidal millionaire. Yep, it’s a story you can only find in the movies.
I had two reactions to City Lights, so let’s begin with the film itself. I laughed a lot watching City Lights, at times out loud, and a few times uncontrollably. So given the point of the film is to laugh, I give credit to writer, director and star Chaplin. The plot is pretty loosely tied together — at times it seems more like a collection of vignettes or comedy sketches. But ultimately the plot holds on from start to finish and it may or may not have a happy ending depending on your perspective. Spoiler alert: the girl gets her sight back and money to save her from being homeless and to move her budding flower business off the street and into a storefront.
Several of the Chaplin bits are hysterical, including one where he tries to save the millionaire from killing himself and they both end up in the bay several times and a classic bit where he awakens after sleeping on a statue to find the statue has been revealed to an audience that includes the mayor and other dignitaries. For me though, the best bit is when he tries to earn money to help the flower girl by boxing. If this scene doesn’t make you laugh out loud you do not have a sense of humor:
All that said, I am surprised by how highly ranked City Lights is, and even more flummoxed by the fact that AFI included three Chaplin films in the top 100. City Lights is very funny, but it’s not the 11th best American film of all time. I agree one Chaplin film should have been included in this list, and I agree that City Lights is the best Chaplin film and worthy of the accolades. But including Modern Times (#78) and The Gold Rush (#58) is overkill. I really enjoyed Modern Times, but it’s the same shtick as City Lights. As for The Gold Rush, I hated it (I nearly fell asleep and turned it off after an hour).
By the way, I do like Charlie Chaplin, but for my money the Marx Brothers are way funnier!
Next Up: we crack the top 10 and head down the stretch run with The Wizard of Oz
The Gold Rush is the second Charlie Chaplin silent film on the AFI Top 100 list and there’s yet one more down the line. This one finds our hero the little tramp on the Alaskan frontier trying to make it big during the gold rush. This one is really slow for my money and not nearly as funny as Modern Times and I suspect not nearly as good as City Lights (at least I hope). I really don’t see why AFI had to include three Chaplin films in the list since they are all pretty much the same. But hey, it’s not my list.
I got bored with The Gold Rush and gave up after an hour.
Next Up: Rocky
When it comes to a film that was made in 1936, the natural question that comes to mind is does it hold up almost 80 years later. I’m happy to say that Modern Times definitely stands the test of time. Charlie Chaplin was brilliant, and not only did he star in the film he also wrote it, directed it and wrote the damn score. Chaplin is one of the most talented men in the history of the motion picture business.
In 1936 the country was in the throes of a depression and about to enter World War II. Modern Times tells the story of a factory worker who is unable to keep up with the demands of the “modern day” American worker and who accidentally gets caught up in the labor movement while trying to simply provide for himself. He befriends a young woman who is living on the streets due to unfortunate circumstances and together they try to find work and carve out a little piece of the American dream — a dream that in 1936 was pretty hard to come by. Chaplin’s tale is a social commentary, but it also makes you laugh out loud. It’s funny because it is a silent film, but that never bothered me because the action was great and the acting was well done. The story was pretty universal as well so I knew what was going on without the dialogue, which is a testament to Chaplin’s brilliance. I bet 1936 audiences were riveted by the film.
If you’ve never seen a full Charlie Chaplin film I highly recommend it. Modern Times is one of two Chaplin films in the AFI top 100 (the other is City Lights at which comes in at #11). I’m really looking forward to that one because if it’s even better than Modern Times it’s going to be excellent. I had never seen a complete Chaplin film, although I did very much enjoy the Robert Downey Jr. biopic so I felt like I knew a lot about Chaplin’s life. But you just can’t fully understand the guy’s abilities until you see him in action. He was a very physical comedian, but he could also make you laugh with the raise of an eyebrow or a look in his eye. Could you imagine any of today’s comedic actors trying to make us laugh without speaking? Maybe Jim Carrey could pull it off but that’s about it.
Chaplin is an icon and a key figure in the history of American film making. He also co-founded United Artists back in 1919 and it is still a pivotal part of the film industry. Amazing man.
Up Next: All The President’s Men (one of my all-time favorites!)