Charlie Chaplin, 1931
Charlie Chaplin is one of those important entertainers that all Americans know about. But in my case, I just know about him from books; I don't know if it's the same way for other people, or if he is or was a regular fixture on off-hours television. Seeing him in a film for the first time was, well, much as I had imagined it might be, which is encouraging evidence that books sometimes get it right.
You could look at City Lights in one of two ways. On one hand, it is a social commentary delivered through silent film. The main supporting characters, a virtuous blind woman and a dissolute young millionaire, fail to respond to the visible markings of the shabby tramp's inferior social status, the blind woman because she literally can not see them and the millionaire because he is usually too drunk to notice. Chaplin achieves humor through this disabling of class semiotics, but he also confronts us with our own reactions to material social markers.
Or, you can see City Lights as a long sequence of sight gags and slapstick physical routines connected and justified by a thin tissue of random and rather hackneyed plotting. Happily, the two interpretations are not mutually exclusive.
Plot: So, he's smitten with the blind girl, and wants to help with her financial problems. The millionaire is his best friend when drunk, but always has the servants run him off the premises once he sobers up. He is able to milk his drunken pal for a while, but then has to turn to legitimate work, then to less legitimate work. I won't give away the ending, but I'll reassure you that they didn't have the virtuous disabled romantic heroine die horribly of starvation in the gutter.
Visuals: The content of the visuals is often terrific; the sets are cleverly and lovingly crafted, and the physical gags are immaculately choreographed. A boxing match (see "random plotting," above) in which Chaplin synchronizes his footwork to keep the referee in between him and his opponent is particularly brilliant. Maybe I'll see if I can find it on the YouTubes for ya. Here it is!
The visuals do not seem especially stunning from a technical standpoint, but then that's usually the case with comedy.
Prognosis: This is an easy film to watch for its technical mastery and as an representative of its period and genre. As an entertainment for today's viewer, however, its silent charms are rather on the thin side. The fact that it has a little meat on its bones, unfortunately, actually renders it a bit less accessible today, when we feel some need for actual dialogue to clarify movie relationships. The most immediately entertaining silent movie in this project was The General, Buster Keaton's long and thrilling train chase, which still works because train chases aren't real chatty. Whereas miming the concept of "I'm nervous about my deteriorating relationship with the millionaire in that it will impact my ability to keep the blind girl I have a crush on in rent money," although impressive if you are a Charlie Chaplin and can pull it off, is just not especially interesting when there are dramatic alternatives.