About twenty-five years ago my grandfather, a POW in World War II, sat me down and we watched a VHS copy of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. When it was done he told me that no other Chaplin film mattered because no other film meant anything. I now know that was not a true statement. I am writing this the day after a major film studio canceled the release of a movie because of threats slightly linked to a dictator, so I can understand why my grandfather would say what he said after we finished watching Adolf Hitler being lampooned, but that does not lessen the importance of City Lights.
One year after The Jazz Singer was released, marking the beginning of the end for silent films, Chaplin started developing a new story for The Tramp, fully intending on it being a silent picture. There was fear that it would not be received well in 1931 since the majority of films had made the transition (a transition which is the plot of number twenty on this list, Singin’ in the Rain). Chaplin did not care, however, and chose to mimic a little kiss to the talkies with the opening scene that sounds eerily similar to the dialogue of a parent in a Peanuts cartoon.
City Lights is a comedy film about The Tramp falling in love with a poor blind woman and befriending a millionaire after Chaplin saves him from a suicide attempt. The story is a little disheveled but everything works out in the end. I was very surprised as I watched the Eccentric Millionaire, as he was billed, walk down the stairs, tie a noose around his neck and the other end around a stone. The Tramp did what, I would hope, anyone would do in that situation and intervened and saved the man’s life. There was something about the scene, though, that stood out for me.
The idea that mental health would be written off as a plot device seems out of place, even so long ago. I came across an article about Chaplin’s mother, who suffered from syphilis (according to the article) that she contracted as a prostitute before Charlie was born, and by the time he was making some of his greatest films, she was living with dementia. In 1928, when he started work on City Lights, Hannah Chaplin died.
Reading that article answers that question for me, in a roundabout way. Yes, it was a plot device, but more than that, I believe it was a coping mechanism. This is not to claim that I know an inside story about the Chaplin family (or am a psychologist) but seeing someone going through dementia can change your outlook because everyone suffers. Chaplin held his cards tightly through his life, which has an ill effect on happiness, and I think that was his way of saying that whatever is happening it is not worth it.
Please trust me when I do say that the film is a comedy. That scene was a small but important part of the picture; I was just caught off-guard when watching it. Throughout the entire film I was laughing myself nearly to tears at some parts. Charlie Chaplin was neither the first nor the last cinema buffoon, but he will always be one of the most important.