Even Chaplin fans who harbor a strong, sentimental attachment to City Lights will usually (though begrudgingly) admit that there are sturdier entries in the legend’s filmography: The Gold Rush is better constructed, The Great Dictator is funnier, The Kid is more emotionally fulfilling, and Modern Times has stronger social commentary. But if martians were to land on Earth and demand to know what this Chaplin character was all about, you could do worse than show them this silent tears-of-a-clown comedy. The movie exemplifies everything that was great and grating about the filmmaker’s artistry: his impeccable physical slapstick (see the boxing match) and his overreliance on embarrassing sentimentality; his intuitive understanding of the medium and frequent displays of the mammoth martyr complex that informed the comedian’s every move.
More importantly, City Lights contains the one single sequence that renders all those Chaplin-versus-Keaton debates pointless. Stop reading now if you’ve never seen the film’s famous climax: Having paid for an operation for a blind flower girl (Cherrill), the destitute Tramp meets his true love years later. The perfectly timed cuts, the graceful looks of recognition on their faces and that last line (“Yes, I can see now”) all hit you like a wallop. Only someone with slow-drying cement in their veins wouldn’t be moved.