This article is part of our Classic Film Throwback series
– By Sam Hendrian –
The old maxim “Love is blind” has become so cliché that it is almost cringe-worthy to hear. Nevertheless, this hackneyed expression is given a beautifully literal meaning in Charlie Chaplin’s timeless romantic comedy City Lights. Released in 1931, it has no audial dialogue despite the fact that sound movies had recently become popularized, but its silence gives it an extra visual profundity. In a world where social media, emotional misunderstandings, and conflicting life goals often project the words “It’s complicated” upon relationships, the profound simplicity of the protagonists’ courtship in this movie reminds us that sincere romance need not be so complex.
City Lights displays the nobility of an atypical hero: a homeless man identified simply as “A Tramp.” Instantly likable and often hilarious, he wanders about the streets of Los Angeles with an admirably optimistic outlook on life. One afternoon, he buys a flower from a street-side florist whom he quickly realizes is blind. Immediately enthralled by the Blind Girl’s grace and beauty, he is mildly distressed when she mistakenly perceives him to be a wealthy man with a fancy car.
Luck is fortunately on the side of the Tramp, as he happens to fall under the favor of a drunken millionaire later that evening after saving him from suicide. The intoxicated man agrees to lend the Tramp some money and his Rolls Royce, which he employs the next morning to buy all of the Blind Girl’s flowers and then drive her home. Unfortunately, the now-sober millionaire does not recognize the Tramp when he returns the Rolls Royce later, and the poor guy is thrown out of the mansion.
The Tramp goes seeking the Blind Girl on the following morning and discovers that she is ill with a fever. Longing to help her somehow, he finds work as a street sweeper so that he can buy her groceries and take care of any other needs that she has. While the Blind Girl cannot see him, she is quickly smitten by how much he genuinely cares about her.
One day while reading the newspaper out loud to the Blind Girl in her apartment, the Tramp comes across a story about a Viennese doctor’s cure for blindness, which greatly excites her, for she longs to see the face of the man who loves her so much. Her excitement worries the Tramp, for he fears his true identity as a homeless man will disappoint her, but he vows to find money for the operation anyway because he knows how much joy it will give her. He also promises to help pay the rent, as she and her grandmother are in danger of being evicted.
Unfortunately, the Tramp is fired from his street-sweeping job because of being late too many times, so he tries to win the cash prize of a local boxing match but fails. Returning to the constantly drunken millionaire, he successfully asks for some cash to give the Blind Girl. However, robbers show up and knock out the rich man, causing him to forget lending money to the Tramp when he regains consciousness and the police arrive. The police chase after the Tramp for having supposedly robbed the rich man, but he manages to pass on the money to the Blind Girl before he is hauled off to jail.
When the Tramp finishes serving time in jail, he returns to the streets of Los Angeles and learns that the Blind Girl has used the money he gave her to pay for the sight-restoring operation advertised in the newspaper. She now runs a professional flower shop and laughs when the scraggly-dressed Tramp coyly smiles at her, joking to her co-worker, “I’ve made a conquest!” But when she touches his hand moments later after offering him a flower, she realizes who he is, and her heart is overwhelmed with joyous affection and gratitude.
While there is not a single kiss or even a hug throughout the duration of City Lights, it is arguably one of the most passionately romantic movies ever made. The Tramp is so wonderfully alive with zeal for giving of himself, and the raw sincerity of this sacrificial zeal enchants in a way that no traditional “love scene” ever could. The Blind Girl’s love-fueled ability to overlook the Tramp’s shabby appearance/status even after she has regained her sight also bears more emotional power than what we are accustomed to seeing in romantic comedies.
Life is undeniably complicated sometimes, but romance need never be so as long as mutual, self-giving love is at its core. City Lights skillfully demonstrates how the unspoken rule of “Show, don’t tell” in relationships does not have to be limited to kissing and so forth. The Tramp’s willingness to forfeit the comfort of his fake identity and even go to jail unfairly for the sake of the Blind Girl’s happiness is one of the richest romantic examples of “Show, don’t tell” ever put on the silver screen. Whomever it may be we are striving to love better—a spouse, a parent, a child, a friend, a stranger—we can certainly learn quite a bit from the sacrificial zeal of this ragged fellow.
About the Author
Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing an emphasis in Directing.
For more articles by Sam, click here.