Charlie Chaplin had a real gift for pantomime. I bring up what is probably the most obvious of statements since the opening of City Lights refers to the movie itself as a comedic romance performed in pantomime. That’s a fairly accurate description, but what really jumps out to me as I watched this one was how expressive Chaplin is.
But I may be getting a bit ahead of myself.
Chaplin is again playing the “Tramp”. Now, none of the characters in this movie have a name, but the Little Tramp is the character Chaplin is best known for playing, and the AFI list has three of his movies listed fairly close together, so I may be repeating myself in a couple more entries.
This time around, the Tramp seems to have a more unified plot than he did with Modern Times. The Tramp essentially has two parallel plots running, one of which supports the other. While out fleeing authority figures after ruining a statue dedication in a city park, the Tramp encounters a beautiful flowergirl. Given the Tramp’s shabby appearance, how the local paper boys mess with him on a routine basis, and how he was even stuck to the aforementioned statue by a large hole in the seat of his pants, the Tramp quickly realizes the girl is blind and sweet. But he’s in a rich part of town, so he assumes (correctly) that the girl thinks he is also a rich gentleman.
The other plot comes into play when the Tramp prevents a drunken millionaire from killing himself by drowning. The Tramp does so by falling into the water himself and having the drunk save him. Twice. As it is, the drunk declares that he no longer wants to die and takes the Tramp home and then out on the town. When the millionaire is drunk, he sees the Tramp as his best friend and insists on taking the poor man home, whether the Tramp wants to go home with him or not. When he’s sober, he doesn’t even know who the Tramp is. However, using the rich man’s gifts, like a loan of a car, allows the Tramp to assist the blind girl and her grandmother on multiple occasions.
As such, Chaplin balances the slapstick mood swings of the millionaire (with an incredibly unfriendly butler) who may or may not be the Tramp’s friend with scenes of the Tramp doing small things for the flowergirl, like using the millionaire’s money to buy her entire flower supply. Eventually things stop working out. The drunk goes to Europe at a key moment, and the Tramp needs to raise $22 for the girl’s rent (man, I wish my rent was only $22…). The Tramp then loses his job and has no other options but to volunteer to throw a fight for a boxing match. Things go south as they tend to do, and the Tramp has the comedic highlight of the movie as he climbs into the boxing ring with a fairly formidable opponent for a winner-take-all match.
The Tramp actually acquits himself rather well before ultimately losing. Using the referee as an obstacle, ringing the bell himself at various points to end rounds early, even knocking the boxer around enough that both of them have trouble standing at the same time, it makes for good comedy.
But I said above that Chaplin proves himself a master of pantomime, and that comes into play at the end. Through a little brazen theft, the Tramp manages to get a thousand dollars from the millionaire to the blind girl with the news she can get her sight from a certain doctor in Vienna. He leaves her shabby apartment and is shortly thereafter arrested. He gets a stint in jail and comes out looking worse than ever. But his deeds did good. The blind girl is no longer blind (as demonstrated when she checks her appearance in a mirror), and now owns a florist shop with her grandmother. The Tramp sees her and tries to slink away a bit. She’s never seen him and assumed he was a millionaire. Heck, she was laughing at him when the paperboys were hitting the Tramp with a pea-shooter. It’s a moment where the poor man is brought heartbreakingly low.
And then she comes out and gradually, through holding his hand, realizes this poor, disheveled man is her unknown savior. She’s shocked, and then pleased. And Chaplin the director does a close up on Chaplin the actor, and he sells the hell out of this moment, the moment of heartbreak that gradually turns to joy as he sees she loves him no matter what he looks like.
Silent movies aren’t subtle things. They can’t be. The motion picture was still a new concept, and people were still trying to figure out how to make the stories they told work. Directors and actors like Chaplin were early pioneers, and it is moments like this that show you that Chaplin could be more than funny. He could turn heartbreak into ecstatic joy in a few seconds. That’s a skill even modern actors need to be effective onscreen. He made us feel for a man who had no voice to say what he felt. He had to use his face and his body language, and by God, he was good at it.
NEXT UP: We got a long one next, as we head into Kevin Costner’s 1990 Western Dances with Wolves.