January 30: City Lights

City LightsCharlie Chaplin’s masterpiece City Lights was released on this day in 1931. Although it is a simple silent film, it manages to be both deeply beautiful and hilarious.

In City Lights, Chaplin’s iconic character the Little Tramp falls in love with a beautiful flower girl and befriends a drunken millionaire. Complications follow when the Tramp discovers that not only is the flower girl blind, but she has mistaken him for a rich man. The Tramp soon learns of a Viennese doctor who can perform an operation that could cure the flower girl’s blindness. So, he decides that since he loves the flower girl, and she has begun to fall in love with him, he will try to find a way to raise the money needed to pay for the operation. However, he fears that the flower girl would reject a tramp like himself if she saw his actual appearance.

It’s not just the romance that makes City Lights work, it’s also the fantastic gags that Chaplin devises. When we first see the Tramp in this film, he’s sleeping in the lap of a statue that is just being unveiled to the public. The Tramp’s misadventures with the alcoholic millionaire are all uproariously funny, featuring set pieces like the millionaire’s unsuccessful suicidal attempt to drown himself (which ends with the Tramp getting thrown into the water) and a madcap police chase. Of course, the fact that the millionaire only remembers the Tramp when he’s drunk leads to further comic complications. The film’s greatest comic sequence comes in the form of a boxing match that the Tramp enters in an attempt to win money for the flower girl. It’s a hilarious comic ballet sequence between the Tramp, his opponent and the match’s referee.

The secret to City Lights‘ success is how it’s able to balance the film’s romantic and comedic elements. At no point is the shift from the wacky to the sentimental jarring; Chaplin is able to seamlessly blend these two elements to create a timeless film that climaxes in what many film historians consider to be one of the most touching final scenes in cinema. But don’t take my word for it, why not ask the experts? In 1963, Stanley Kubrick named it the fifth greatest film of all time, and Andrei Tarkovsky placed it in the same position in his 1972 ranking of the best films of all time. Woody Allen has named City Lights Chaplin’s greatest film, Frederico Fellini said it was one of his favorite movies and Orson Welles simply called it his all time favorite film.

What do we drink to celebrate City Lights? Why, a Charlie Chaplin of course. This cocktail comes to us from Albert Stevens Crockett’s 1931 book, Old Waldorf Bar Days. According to Crockett, this sweet cocktail was invented at the Waldorf Hotel and “named in [Chaplin’s] honor when he began to make the screen public laugh.”

Charlie Chaplin

  • 1 ounce Sloe Gin
  • 1 ounce lime juice
  • 1 ounce Apricot Brandy

Shake with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Tomorrow: A man dressed in green and his Black Beauty.

 

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