Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp character began and is generally known as a considerable devil. In a bit of a departure from that role, Chaplin provides in City Lights the closest thing to salvation the comic world can offer. The film is a beautiful and almost Biblical story of sacrifice, lightened by some brilliant silliness: the Little Tramp falls in love with a blind girl, a poor flower vendor who lives with her grandmother and can’t afford her own rent, much less the expensive operation that would cure her condition. In his efforts to raise the money himself, Chaplin becomes an unlikely (and very loosely implied) savior—feeding the hungry, cheering the hopeless, being ridiculed, spit on, betrayed, imprisoned, and sacrificing himself for another. And when the formerly blind girl finally recognizes her healer at the end, Chaplin creates possibly the most powerful moment in all of film history.
Rich symbolism is there, but does not sink the film into irretrievable seriousness. It is, as the subtitle indicates, a “comedy romance in pantomime.” Chaplin’s Little Tramp is too awkward to be much of a melodramatic suitor, and even the most poignant moments are interrupted by characteristic gags and spills (note especially the scene at the canal or the hilarious boxing match). Chaplin removes any resistance we may have to the weighty moral or the potentially challenging silent format by laughing through every difficulty, and proving definitively what substantial joy and pathos can be communicated without words.