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Op-Ed: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions – ‘City Lights’ (#10)

Op-Ed: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions – ‘City Lights’ (#10)
I will be watching and reviewing all of the films included on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions list. The list contains the 100 greatest love stories in American cinema and I plan to consider how our views on romance and social issues have changed over the years as well as judge whether the romances in these films actually made me swoon. As a fan of the romance genre, I expect to love each and every one of the nominees but I also don’t know if I would consider all of them romantic.

City Lights (1931) might have reduced early 1930s audiences to tears of both laughter and sadness, but I dare say that it has not aged well. Unlike some of the timeless classic films of this period, it feels very dated and of its time. Charlie Chaplin’s over-the-top style of slapstick has not aged well and you can see him putting a lot of effort into his acrobatic movements. He also tries to insert social commentary into the stories that he tells, but rather than subtly threading his points into scenes that also feature moments of comedy and romance, he feels the need to hit the audience in the face with his polemic against wealth inequality. The comedy and the drama never quite combine to create the funny, emotionally resonant moments that Chaplin seems to be trying to create. Maybe all of the jokes did land back in 1931, and everybody cried at the sappy, emotionally manipulative final scene. Maybe I’m a madwoman for disliking this. 

As with many other Chaplin flicks, the plot is disjointed and it never feels as though the different plot threads come together to form a whole. The comedic plotline involves The Little Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) befriending a drunk millionaire (Harry Myers), who only recognizes him when he is inebriated. This means that he is provided with a place to sleep and occasional monetary gifts, but grows confused when the millionaire kicks him out of his mansion after sobering up. The romantic plotline involves The Little Tramp courting a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill). She is unaware of his identity and imagines him as an extremely wealthy benefactor who will be able to take her away from all her sorrows. When he hears about a Viennese doctor who can cure blindness, he decides that he needs to raise the money to have the flower girl treated. He is able to get money from the millionaire in order to pay for her treatment but goes to prison because the millionaire hits his head and forgets that he agreed to give the money to him. If it sounds a bit contrived, that’s because it is. Chaplin seemed to be a big fan of overly convoluted plots that relied on a lot of clichéd plot devices. 

4 Reasons Why “City Lights” Is Charlie Chaplin's Best Movie | Taste Of Cinema - Movie Reviews and Classic Movie Lists

I could never quite buy into any of the twists or turns and I hated the fact that I always felt as though he was toying with me. There was something painful about seeing a piece of art that so desperately wants to get a certain emotional response out of you. When you can see the gears turning in Chaplin’s head as he performs, it becomes more difficult to enjoy the moments where he humorously hops into a vehicle. It tries too hard and that takes all the fun out of it. With its loose, almost non-existent structure, this could have been one of those free flowing, almost avant-garde studio comedies that came out of Paramount during the early 1930s. Instead of taking risks when it came to the tone of the film, he chose to turn this into a saccharine sobfest. 

The comedy and the social commentary were poorly executed but the romance also fails to work because, as in most Chaplin projects, the love interest is a pretty object who has to be purchased. He needs to make enough money to get her the operation and then she suddenly decides that he’s worthy of her love. Their romantic connection does not develop organically and their relationship feels purely transactional. He has a friend who will provide him with money and can financially support her, while she has no discernible personality traits but appears to be quite physically attractive. They build their relationship on the transaction of money and, presumably, sex and, as a result, there is very little passion involved. For the most part, it feels as though the romance is just there to satisfy the ladies in the audience. 1930s audiences expected most films to feature a romance and the blind flower girl was just there to tick a box on the list of requirements that needed to be satisfied in order to produce a box office hit. 

That famous final scene didn’t leave me crying my eyes out because the two main characters were thinly drawn archetypes and their bond did not seem to mean anything. There was never the feeling that she seriously hesitated before agreeing to be with him, or had to battle her inner demons in order to enter into a serious relationship. She was just a sweet young thing who was on hand to be ravished by the male lead. If you have seen any film, you can predict how this one ends. That is true of most romantic comedies but the fun is meant to come with seeing how the central couple gets to the predictable finale. Both the journey and the destination are deeply disappointing in this subpar example of the genre. 

I can’t see what made AFI go so gaga for City Lights but they loved it enough to give it a high position on many of their vaunted lists. I can only trust that they take Chaplin’s towering reputation too seriously and felt that they needed to honour him for his legacy. Personally, I would have liked it if they had given more honours to Monsieur Verdoux (1947), which stands as the most modern of all the comedies he made about class warfare. 

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