Saturday, December 2, 2023
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City Lights Review

As the final months of this rancid year move toward us, I find my schedule lighter to the tune of contemporary releases. In the case of this year, that is a true blessing, there has been little in the way of quality, and aside from brief festival trips and the odd, fascinating discoveries, there has been little of note or merit. You can’t blame me for wanting a bit of quality in my life, and it’s why I’m slowly kindling my love for silent comedy films. I’ve dabbled in my fair share of Buster Keaton pieces, his lesser-known works with College and Our Hospitality are relative surprises to someone as dense as me, but I lack the knowledge necessary when it comes to Charlie Chaplin. City Lights, then, is my second piece from the man most defined by this era of filmmaking.  

The many facets of talent facing us with Chaplin’s work are on full display here. Undeterred by the rise of sound utilisation and other such modernities, this silent piece comes to us when innovation is available elsewhere. That’s not to say City Lights doesn’t adapt or inspire, though, and it does so with such feverish charm and grace only Chaplin could bring to these comedies. With such grand visuals for the comedy, there’s much to love about this one. I’d been a bit lukewarm on Chaplin, The Kid is an exceptional film but it didn’t have all that many moments within it that I can look back on with fond affliction.  

Moments of genuine hilarity are littered throughout, the boxing scene and its choreography in particular is a standout moment for me. There are of course those few moments that do nothing to elevate the craft. A relatively safe story of romance is lost entirely to antics beyond the realm of explanation, and all these sketch-like moments of boxing rings and articulate slapstick struggle to link together. The madness is engrossing and beautiful to see unfold, but there’s no narrative backbone to this one, not one that really matters or interests me. Still, you can have fun without Chaplin trying to woo the flower girl, it’s there from time to time, but, as you’d expected, the moments where Chaplin flies solo are the high points of this one.  

City Lights is considered the defining moment of Chaplin’s work, well, one of them at the very least. It’s easy to see why that would be the case, and in crafting this one, Chaplin defines himself as the rightful king of silent comedy. It’s a conventional, unsurprising take to hold, but it’s the correct one. His consistencies in feature-length filmmaking are far beyond anything you could ever hope for, and he far exceeds the consistency needed in both humour and acting. He’s an all-rounder, where Keaton may have the story nailed down, and Harold Lloyd has the gripping action, Chaplin brought slapstick silence to the big screen in as balanced and thoughtful a way possible.  

Ewan Gleadow
Ewan Gleadow
Editor in Chief at Cult Following | News and culture journalist at Clapper, Daily Star, NewcastleWorld, Daily Mirror | Podcast host of (Don't) Listen to This | Disaster magnet

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