Silent Laughter and Melancholy

City Lights at the Plaza in Brookline Village

THERE EXISTS a special group of film comedies that make us laugh so hard our faces hurt afterwards. As the re-release of City Lights joins that of Modern Times, Charles Chaplin is batting two for two--but then, we could hardly expect less from the man billed as the King of Comedy. That Chaplin is as wonderful as the initiated have always claimed comes as a bit of a relief, like discovering that ice cream really is that delicious. This funny, sometimes sad, love story of the Tramp and the blind flower girl may well be the chocolate of the bunch: one of the oldest and still the best.

After a rather tepid Krazy Kat cartoon and a razzle-dazzle rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" that shouldn't be missed--technicolor psychedelics, sing-along sub-titles, and a flag with the wrong number of stars--we arrive in the Big City, which is probably Los Angeles but could be anyplace. Here the Tramp criss-crosses paths with the beautiful girl and the eccentric millionaire. She thinks that Chaplin must be wealthy as well as kind--after all, she's heard him getting out of a limousine. Smitten by love, he can't bring himself to explain that he'd walked through the car because it had blocked his path, and supports her original illusion with a lot of fancy talk and an occasional stroke of luck.

His major bit of fortune (half good, half mis-) is his acquaintance with the millionaire. The two meet when the Tramp prevents the unhappy drunk from drowning himself. The grateful man pledges his eternal friendship. After putting on the patent leather shoes he had carefully removed before attempting suicide, the millionaire takes the Tramp out on a glorious so used night on the town. But when the sober light of morning comes, the suicidal friend returns to his calm, business-as-usual self. He throws out his little friend whom he does not even remember. But at strategic moments the millionaire makes an alcoholic appearance and the cycle begins again.

City Lights was made during the turn into the 1930's, the cusp between the silents and sound films. Barely touching on the newer possibilities, it reaches into silent comedy's vaudevillian traditions for many effects and gags. Then after his chair has been moved, or accidentally substituting soap for his neighbor's cheese) is just one mark of his genius. We know that he'll flip his rescuer into the water as he struggles to get out, and we laugh uproariously anyway. Chaplin brings off new twists in a drunk scene and plays those familiar cliches with such finesse that we have to love him.

THE MOVIE abounds in visual puns, a subtler cinematic kind of burlesque. The buffoonery of Chaplin's extricating himself from a newly unveiled statue is climaxed when he inadvertently thumbs his nose at the mayor by using the statue's hand. When a waiter brings the inebriated Tramp a plate of spaghetti, it's inevitable and delightful that our hero should also chew up one of the party streamers festooning the room. Buckets of water in the face, stones accidentally falling on innocent toes, police as easily misdirected as the Keystone Cops: it's all there. And in the only specifically aural gag, Chaplin swallows a whistle to create a hilarious variation of the hiccupping concert-goer who can't stop when the aria begins.

Harry Myers shuttles stylishly between his roles of unloveable businessman and laughable drunk, and Virginia Cherrill is as appropriately sweet and endearing as any in the long line of Hollywood waifs. The film, however, never strays far from its hero: this is the Tramp's story, and Charlie Chaplin is the Tramp. More than anything in the plot's evolution or even the set-up of individual scenes, the humor and-or sadness evoked depends on Chaplin's unique blend of esprit and helplessness in this, his best-known character. He always chooses just the right foolish grin, the exact degree of surprise, the perfect whimper of apology.


Infinitely polite, his hat tipped to one and all, the Tramp is the superlative nice guy--but topped with an occasional defiance that keeps him from being saccharine. The helping hand that always gets slapped, the Tramp is everyone who's ever tried his best and fallen flat on his face. Perhaps that's why the ending hurts so much. When one of the millionaire's character transplants ruins the Tramp's chances to help the girl legally, our hero snatches the money for her sight-restoring operation and bolts. Later, as he wanders the streets after his release from jail, he meets his old love, now proprietress of her own shop. She knows him by the touch of his hand, but barely hides her disappointment in his abject poverty. We are left facing the little Tramp who clutches strange and how bitter for us to end in tears after laughing incessantly for an hour and a half.