Among the master-works of Charlie Chaplin, probably the wackiest and laugh-out-loud funniest is The Gold Rush, the film for which he wanted to be remembered and which he gave a sound update in 1942. For most heart-tugging and thought-provoking, I would pick Modern Times, the film picked for the Vatican film list).
But City Lights is the quintessential Chaplin film — both the most perfectly crafted and satisfying of all his films, and also the most representative of all the different textures and tones for which Chaplin is remembered, from slapstick and pantomime to pathos and sentiment, farce and irreverence to melodrama and social commentary.
In City Lights, the Tramp, a perennial social outsider, forms a pair of relationships with two individuals — a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) and a much-inebriated, suicidal millionaire (Harry Myers) — whose respective incapacities allow them to accept the otherwise unacceptable Tramp. Whenever the millionaire is sober he has the Tramp thrown out, but drunk he welcomes him as a friend. The blind girl, too, befriends the Tramp, though if she could see she would presumably have nothing to do with him.
Yet, ironically, their “blindnesses” allow them to see the Tramp as he truly is, a fellow with a heart of gold who repeatedly saves the millionaire’s life at much peril to himself, and who is willing to risk everything to give the blind girl a chance to see, even the possibility of losing her. The emotion of the unforgettable, delicately subdued final scene is overwhelming; first-time viewers must surely hold their breath in anticipation, wondering whether the scene will end in blissful fulfillment or cruel irony.
New from the Criterion Collection, Charlie Chaplin’s comedy classic The Gold Rush is now available on Blu-ray and DVD in a single edition that includes both the original 1925 silent film and Chaplin’s 1942 reworking of the film in a quasi-sound edition, with humorous, documentary-like narration replacing the intertitles.
Silent films were already old-fashioned and out of vogue in 1936 when Charlie Chaplin completed his last silent feature film, Modern Times, almost ten years after the sound revolution began with The Jazz Singer. A silent film consciously made for the sound era, Modern Times is a comic masterpiece that remains approachable today even for movie lovers raised on computer imaging and surround sound.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.