Buster Keaton may be the greatest of the silent clowns, but Charlie Chaplin is the most enduringly popular, and for good reason. No one, before or since, has displayed such a knack for mixing high comedy and pathos. While his messages may sometimes overtake the actual story (see: the eloquent yet out place final speech in The Great Dictator), he nevertheless manages to work his didacticism into the gags, letting us learn while we laugh. Of his films, City Lights marks the high point of his career, the perfect blend of his humor and sentimentality in open defiance of the advent of sound.
Inarguably the finest romantic comedy ever produced, City Lights more or less invented the genre as it placed itself firmly at the top of its heap for all time. The story, as with all of Chaplin's work, is rather simple: a beautiful blind girl mistakes the Tramp for a millionaire. The Tramp falls in love with her and attempts to raise money for her eye operation. Meanwhile, he prevents an actual millionaire from committing suicide, who drunkenly fawns over his savior yet can never seem to remember him in the morning.
These two stories intersect with one another as the Tramp uses the gifts the millionaire bestows upon him to continue fooling the girl into thinking he too is rich. He does so not out of cruelty to the poor blind woman but because of his own fear of his real social status. He finally found someone who might love him, but what if she finds out he's a bum?
Had anyone but Chaplin been in charge of the gags involving the flower girl's blindness, this could have been a much different film. But the director makes these scenes sweet because no matter how many times the blind girl accidentally throws water in his face or continues to face in a direction after the Tramp moves, Chaplin covers it up with moving exchanges between the two.
But the best gags of the movie come from the interactions between the Tramp and the millionaire. Harry Myers, in possibly the best supporting performance in one of Chaplin's films, is almost as funny as the leading man himself. The millionaire leaps from drunken ecstasy to suicidal despair and back again the moment the Tramp stops him. Myers will brawl anyone over the slightest provocation, throw opulent parties and treat the Tramp like his only friend in the world...until the next morning when he can't remember a thing.
Eventually the Tramp manages to get his friend to give him the money to pay for the girl's rent and operation, but must run from the cops when the millionaire sobers up and accuses him of theft. In one of the most subtle yet memorable moments of any Chaplin film I've seen, the Tramp gets the money to the girl, who kisses his hand in gratitude, at which point he without hesitation takes out one last bill he was saving for himself and gives it to her.
The final scene is hands down the greatest film ending ever. The Tramp, out of jail for his "theft," stops in front of a store that the flower girl now owns. She spends her days selling flowers and holding her breath for every rich man who enters in case its her hero. Then the Tramp shows up, and she recognizes him when she touches his hand. "You?" she asks. "You can see now?" responds the Tramp, terrified of what might happen. Then the girl smiles and the film fades to black amidst swelling music.
Words do the scene no justice. This is a silent film after all, made after The Jazz Singer heralded the end of an era. Chaplin subverts this demand with his sparing use of sound effects. When a politician unveils a statue at the start of the film, his pompous speech is replaced with blasts of a kazoo, highlighting the twittering nothingness of politicians. Later, the Tramp accidentally swallows a whistle and toots every time a conductor strikes up the band, a possible allusion to talkies ruining the actual fun of the picture (which they did for years until the technology progressed to allow the camera to move again).
All this combines into the finest comedy of the silent era, and probably ever. I've seen the film twice now, but I've watched the ending over and over. Even now it brings tears to my eyes. Chaplin's Tramp always wanted love, but usually the audience's. Here, he finally finds someone who truly loves him and sees the gentle soul beneath, and it made audiences love him even more. If you want to know just how influential this film remains, just pop in your copy of Wall•E.