I’ve been really depressed recently. And as anyone who is a fellow sufferer knows: there is no reason. It is just, as a friend once put it to me, as though you are living in a world of black and white; and sun never comes out. As a result, I’ve been trying — in vain — to cheer myself up with much cinematic comedy: Wallace and Gromit, Monty Python, and most especially Charlie Chaplin. Tonight, I watched City Lights for probably the first time in thirty years. There are reasons why I’ve avoided it for so long.
I disagree with most critics. I don’t think it is the high point of Chaplin’s career. I think that both The Gold Rush and Modern Times are better films. The main problem with City Lights is that it has some distinct dead spots. I think the fact that it is an incredibly compelling story has made viewers miss the fact that a number of bits just don’t live up Chaplin’s best work. What’s more, I really do think that Virginia Cherrill as the flower girl is weak. In fact, her performance is so poor that the viewer wouldn’t know what to make of the ending if Chaplin hadn’t directed it well by focusing on the continued holding of hands.
All that said, City Lights is a fantastic film. By the end of it, I was sobbing. Like everyone, I assume, I very much identify with the tramp. What is so special about him is that he isn’t all good. He’s lazy. He’s often dishonest. But most of all, he’s self-important. He thinks rather highly of himself, as is represented here by his interactions with the newspaper boys who mock and shoot spitballs at him. Yet we forgive all these sins because ultimately, the tramp is a decent person.
A wonderful expression of this is near the end of the film. The tramp has just absconded with the rich man’s money. (It was given to him, but justice is as rare in a Chaplin film as it is on the streets of Ferguson.) He gives her money for the rent and money for her eye surgery. But he pockets one bill — I assume a hundred dollars. This is his tendency. He looks out for number one. But in the end, the better angels of his nature win out. And I think that’s universal. It seems to me that every time someone has complimented me for doing something nice, I’ve always wanted to blurt out, “Yeah, but I almost didn’t do it!” Because that’s true. My instincts are not evil, but they are also not the best of who I am.
Of course, the true brilliance of the film is found in an early scene where Chaplin manages to establish the blind flower girl thinking that the tramp is a rich man without a word. It starts with, once again, the tramp being anything but upright. Rather than cross the street like normal people, he just walks through the cars — in the door on one side and out the door on the other. It’s funny, and it’s been used by a lot of people since, but here it is used primarily to establish the sound of the door closing so that the girl thinks he is getting out of his own car. Of course the real brilliance comes on the exit when the tramp buys a flower, and while waiting for his change, a wealthy man gets in his car and goes. She thinks it is the tramp disregarding his change.
I’m not sure that watching Chaplin when I’m depressed is a good idea. It does make me feel good in its universality and the ultimate sense of goodness. But things always work out for the little tramp in ways they just don’t in the real world. And that lays heavy after the film is over.