There is of course no greatest anything of all time, but the American Film Institute loves to do this stuff, and when AFI recently picked its number one Greatest Romantic Comedy, Living RomCom had to heed the call, though with a modicum of wariness and skepticism. For the longtime film buff, one stands in relation to City Lights as a native New Yorker does to the Empire State Building: when you first experienced it as a little kid, it blew you away; years later you took a tourist friend to it and loved it again; but generally in your adult life, you take it for granted as an endearing but tacitly kitsch landmark.
I was one of the many film students of my generation to have the legendary final close-up shot of Chaplin, flower at mouth, from City Lights tacked up on my wall (along with Belmondo in Breathless and the rest). But mea culpa: I was not only blindsided by AFI's choice, I was guilt-stricken -- though I discuss both Chaplin and Keaton in Writing the Romantic Comedy, I failed to add Lights to the book's "100 Noteworthy Romantic Comedies" list, reasoning that today's screenwriters would only be interested in talkies.
Wrong. That nearly 80 years after its release, the silent City Lights beat out the famously voluble Annie Hall for the title indicates that a) AFI's membership is still holding the barbarians at the gate, and b) Chaplin's defiant feature (released in 1931, when the rest of the cinematic world had gone talking-movie mad) still has plenty to say to us thoroughly modern movie-lovers. Indeed, my revisit convinced me: contemporary screenwriters could do a lot worse in their search for case study rom-coms to steal from.
AFI and I aren't alone in our assessment -- no less a personage than Orson Welles (that fat guy who did the wine commercials-- who also directed an old movie that's got Statue of Liberty-like status in the cinematic skyline) cited City Lights as his favorite movie. For comedy fans, it completes a generally accepted Chaplin peak triumvirate, with The Gold Rush and Modern Times. For rom-commers, it's poetry in motion: a pure distillation of the form's basic principles writ in elegant black and white.
Here's the thing about classics: they tend to be high concept. The Odyssey, Hamlet, Moby Dick are all grounded in killer premises, yielding simple plots passionately driven to inexorably satisfying conclusions. Like these, the movie hangs a number of episodes and digressions on one bold and sturdy construct; Lights is essentially a collection of "things Charlie Chaplin does best" slung over one archetypal armature.
It's one with fairy tale-like lyricism: A near-penniless Tramp falls in love with a beautiful blind flower-seller who mistakes him for a millionaire. This immediately raises all the necessary stakes and complications one would ask for in a romance, posing the central story question, Will the poor pretender be able to help restore her sight? -- with a compelling subtextual dilemma attached: What will become of him if he succeeds?
The tale would be more pathetic than comedic if it wasn't crossed with a story line that's equally eloquent in its simplicity: the Tramp saves from suicide an actual millionaire, who treats the Tramp like his best buddy in the world when drunk... and doesn't recognize him when he's sober. We're now given the necessary tension to sustain the entire story, which rests on the simple question: how and when will the Tramp be able to prevail upon the millionaire to solve the blind girl's problem?
The perfect seesaw of emotion that's created by juxtaposing these two storylines, one sentimental, one farcical, is echoed in microcosm in scene after scene -- it's the essence of Chaplin's method. In the cute-meet on the street, where the Tramp is first experiencing the Girl's blindness and beauty, he sits for a moment to sniff at the flower she's sold him and to moon over her, unseen -- only to have her dump a pot of water on him because she can't see him. Any time the story threatens to become sappy, Charlie manages to un-sap it with a laugh.
You see this sensibility in brief cinematic asides, as when later, while Charlie still sniffs at his treasured flower, the suicidal drunken millionaire, fetching yet another bottle, comes upon a framed photo of his errant wife atop his liquor cabinet and matter-of-factly tosses it away: one man's romantic fantasy trumped by another's bitter experience.
The movie is rife with this kind of iconic imagery. The very opening, after the title is spelled out in '20s Gershwin-like jazzy lights, instantly paints a succinct picture of its world: at a crowded, pompous ceremony in the park, some stuffed shirt blow-hards unveil a three-figured sculpture... and there's a homeless guy, our hero, fast asleep in the lap of the central marble statue. He proceeds to get stuck on another figure's sword, in trying to escape -- and uses the third statue's hand to thumb his nose at the outraged cops below.
Another hallmark of classicism is a kind of brute force in the storytelling that feels agelessly modern (for really good cinematic storytelling, read Homer: Tarantino has nothing on the mordantly black-humored bloodbath set piece that climaxes Ulysses' return). While Chaplin reportedly shot hundreds of takes to get the setup for his mistaken identity conceit right, his ultimate choice is amazingly deft in execution -- it happens so fast, and Charlie's so light on his feet, that you never question the contrivance.
Yes, there are routines in the movie that go on too long for modern attention span-challenged pace, but there are also gags wound and set off so tight and so right that they feel positively po-mo. My first genuine LOL on this viewing: Charlie, having been momentarily given the millionaire's car ("You like it? Take it!"), drives up the block to catch up with a smoking pedestrian, so he can rescue the guy's tossed-away butt. A bum on the sidewalk is making a grab for the butt as Charlie jumps from the Rolls Royce-like car to swipe it first. Charlie hurries back behind the wheel and drives off, smoking his prize, and we hold on the bewildered bum, going WTF...?!
The joke gains added resonance (which must have really deepened the laugh in its day) when you realize that you've just seen enacted the essence of the Depression. And that's another thing about Chaplin at the top of his game: the gags are grounded in a philosophical reality that rings true across the decades.
Here's Charlie the weary street cleaner, seeing a parade of horses go by, turning round to shirk his duty (so to speak), tiptoeing his cart in the opposite direction... and here comes an elephant.
Isn't life like that? is the constant refrain of City Lights, and meanwhile you get Judd Apatow-like below-the-belt farce (e.g. the drunk millionaire missing the Tramp's glass and pouring half a bottle of booze down his baggy pants), and sudden acute tugs at the heart. I sat through Lights again with some complacency, remembering routines that were nonetheless crack-ups the fourth time around (the boxing ring sequence alone is worth the admission), and then that famous last scene came at me, and damn if I didn't make like a faucet.
Whether you're a City Lights virgin or a seasoned cineaste, the Chaplin Collection DVD is the way to go, containing a perfect print and a trove of special features that include everything from a minute's worth of rehearsal footage to an on-set visit from Winston Churchill. Check it out if you want to see what AFI made the fuss about -- you'll be mainlining some rom-com magic from the mother-lode of a master.