For Valentine’s week, I’m looking at one of the best loved romantic movies of all time. No, not Casablanca, though that is one of the best loved romantic movies of all time. Go back about another decade, to 1931, to the time of Charlie Chaplin. His films enraptured me as a boy. Even today, as I watched City Lights with my family, it mesmerized my daughters, seeing it for the first time. And all the good feelings came back to me, classic scene after classic scene, the classic soundtrack sounding half from the TV, half in my memory. The comedy still makes me laugh, and the drama still moves me.
Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights is a feature-length silent film, one of the last of the great actor, writer, and director. We meet our hero, the little tramp, having spent the night sleeping on a statue. This is his life, a life he’s taken on by choice. He falls in love with a blind flower girl. When she mistakenly gets the impression that he’s rich, he falls back to admiring her from afar. But when he then heroically saves a drunk millionaire from committing suicide, the millionaire pledges his eternal gratitude and friendship. He dresses his friend in the best clothes, takes him to the best restaurant, lets him drive the motorcar, and gives him money, which he uses to help and impress the girl.
Chaplin makes great comedy out of this pauper turned prince in one hillarious shot. He jumps from the car, back then only afforded by the wealthy. He pushes over a poor sod picking up a used cigar butt, grabs the butt in order to smoke it himself, then still wearing his tuxedo, gets back in the car and drives off.
However, he is in love with this girl, and she with him. But he must play the part of a wealthy man, even when the millionaire takes off for a European trip. So he gets a job. One day, he reads about an operation that could cure the girls blindness, and he discovers her rent is overdue. She’s going to lose her home. He promises to take care of it. But then he loses his job. No money, no job, no millionaire. And then the story really gets interesting.
This movie ends with one of the most touching, dramatic scenes ever filmed. None of the characters have names, but they still tugged at my heartstrings.