the sight & sound top 50 challenge: city lights (1931)

This year I am attempting to see more films that I ever have in a year, and whilst I can easily increase the number of new releases I see by attending the cinema on a more regular basis I also want to expand upon the number of classics in my repertoire. These ‘great’ films are the ones that many would claim are essential to expanding my cinematic vocabulary and are pieces of cinema history that have greatly impacted the discourses that come about in my classes and in my everyday film-related conversations.

With this goal in mind I am embarking on what I call ‘The Sight & Sound Top 50 Challenge’. This entails watching one film each week from the most recent Sight & Sound Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time poll, beginning with number 50 and working all the way to number 1. Each week I will publish a brief response to the film where I document my reaction, reading and understanding of the film, particularly as a piece of work holding a “greatest film of all time” title. 

I must admit I have fallen behind. Not in my viewing of each film but in my writing about them. Over the next week I will be catching up on these films. This post features the final film tied at #50 with La Jetée and Ugetsu Monogatari, Charlie Chaplin's beloved City Lights.

#50 City Lights (1931) dir. Charlie Chaplin

United Artists

United Artists

Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights is timelessly funny. A whimsical romantic comedy and a champion of the physical comedies, the 1931 classic is laugh out loud funny in a way that many contemporary comedies are unable to muster. Along with being celebrated for its contributions to comedy, Chaplin’s pre-Code picture bares the impressive feat of being a successful silent picture during the newly dialogue-ridden Hollywood, where it became something of a novelty. The story follows Chaplin’s Little Tramp character as he strikes up a relationship with a blind flower seller. Unable to tell he is poor, the blind girl mistakes him for a man of wealth; an illusion The Tramp is able to maintain for a short time with the friendship he develops with an Eccentric Millionaire. The Millionaire has a penchant for getting drunk, and when he does so, he views the Little Tramp as his best friend, showering him in gifts and money. When he sobers up however, he doesn’t recognise the man, kicks him out of his home, and even accuses him of stealing. As the Tramp becomes more desperate for money to save his blind love, he takes on many jobs, each more comical than the next.

There is an ease and naturalness to Chaplin’s Little Tramp. The comedy arises from the very nature of the character, and the gags provide the principal means of revealing that character to the audience. Every scene and gesture is played to perfection by the consummate pantomime. A simple but utterly perfect example of this is the film’s first scene. We open on the town square where the city has gathered for the unveiling of a new statue, only to find the Little Tramp has been sleeping on the statue under its wrapping. As he attempts to flee the scene he repeatedly gets caught on the statue, leaving the crowd aghast and the audience in stitches. Viewers are won over immediately by Chaplin’s magical performance that takes place in every step – or rather, every misstep – the Little Tramp takes.

United Artists

United Artists

Perhaps the most heart-warming of Chaplin’s film, City Lights defends the poor and makes fun of those whose wealth provides them an easy lifestyle. Harry Myers’ Eccentric Billionaire is also a highlight of the picture; the endlessly funny dichotomy of the friendship he maintains with the Little Tramp would be enough to sustain the entire narrative. Like with many silent pictures, a stronger appreciation for the craft derives from the realisation that there is no real need for them to be ‘talkies.’ Nothing would have been added to City Lights’ quality nor its timelessness had it included dialogue. Instead, the storytelling is left to the director’s imagination as he crafts his shot, and the actor’s choices as they embody their characters. In City Lights, moments of sincerity, such as The Tramp’s first encounter with the flower girl as he falls in love, are pure movie magic as Chaplin captures bold emotion just through his movements and choice of shots.

A contemporary viewing of any film on the Sight and Sound Top 50 allows it to be viewed in a fresh context, where audience’s harbour knowledge of those films it has inspired and influenced. Chaplin’s Little Tramp character is a clear example of this, having evolved into arguably one of the most recognisable personalities in comedy. In simple terms, The Tramp is the lovable fool, evoking pity from the audience for his unlucky and often clueless behaviour. By combining pity and humour, Chaplin established the luckless clown character who is regularly beloved by the audience because of the sympathy they feel towards them, for all their moments of humour are underlined with an element of sadness. Examples of this include the characters played by Ricky Gervais and Steve Carrell in the UK and US versions of The Office respectively, or Zack Galifanakis’ character, Alan, in The Hangover franchise. Audiences champion them because they are lovable and a little stupid. Everything they do is funnier because of their character.

United Artists

United Artists

The direct influence to cinema that Chaplin’s talent bestowed pays homage to his timelessness as a filmmaker. His capacity to write, portray and depict funny moments in his roles as the writer, star and director (amongst many other technical roles) of City Lights is almost unprecedented and unbeaten since, except perhaps by auteur Woody Allen. Allen himself said that the last scene in his Manhattan was largely inspired City Lights’ final sequence. Despite also baring a heartbreaking love story, City Lights is foremost remembered for its more light-hearted and humorous scenes, where comedic gags manifest from every creative decision and laughter is all that is asked from its audience. City Lights was funny then, and it is funny now, and I suspect that won’t ever change.