Zach's 10 Favorite Movies: 4. City Lights (1931)
"You?" - A Blind Girl
I knew next to nothing about silent film. I knew that the first few decades of film was silence and I knew that the first sound films had a bit of a "tinny" quality to them. It of course made me want to avoid each of them because, "What's a movie without sound and what's sound without the incredible sound quality of now?" Then, in that same film studies class, I was introduced to City Lights.
The sheer genius of silent filmmakers is not only in their ingenuity with how to convey nearly all of the story visually, but to make us laugh, cry, and fear as well. I remember being utterly awestruck at the artistry of the humor and the genuine pathos of the characters. I've never been a physical humor person, but I am so tickled by all of the physical humor in City Lights. I found myself still laughing at the night club scene, the boxing scene and so many others. It's even perfect that he does add a little sound to the scene at the Eccentric Millionaire's party when he interrupts the singer's performance with his whistle.
Yet, what keeps me coming back to this film is its emotional core. That core is the case of mistaken identity that kicks off that storyline and the subsequent need for The Tramp to keep trying to win A Blind Girl's heart (Chaplin wasn't big on naming characters as you can tell). It would have made sense to leave it there with A Blind Girl figuring out The Tramp's deception while she's still blind, but Chaplin goes for something more.
The scenes I dread every viewing are the scenes I anticipate with every viewing. It's that devastating gut punch of an ending. After The Tramp is released from prison and he stumbles across A Blind Girl's shop, she and her assistant laugh at his misfortune, his face turns. The Tramp is suddenly seen and is struck as if by some divine force. We know and he knows, but achingly, she doesn't know and it isn't until she grabs his hand to stop him that she knows. She feels his hand and his face and she knows. She experienced the greatest kindness she's ever received from a man who has absolutely nothing for himself. It's such a painful, beautiful end to the film.
That longing for connection isn't the longing I always see in City Lights, though. I always understand the longing to be one of respect. More than anything, The Tramp's actions are of a man who just desperately wants one iota of the respect he pretends at. He wants to be an elite and a gentleman so badly that when he gets the respect he wants from A Blind Girl he does everything he can to keep it.