Each week, this column will cover one film on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American films of all time, covering my thoughts on the film and whether or not I think it belongs on the list. You can also see my personal ranking here. This week’s film is #11 on the list: City Lights (1931).
The third and final Charlie Chaplin film I’ve covered from the AFI list, City Lights is the highest ranked of the three by a longshot, coming in at #11 (compared to The Gold Rush at #58 and Modern Times at #78). Finally, the AFI voters and I share some common ground when it comes to Chaplin: of the three, this is my favorite. Rather than merely amusing, City Lights is outright hilarious—especially in sequences like the whistle-swallowing incident at the party which heightens the comedy until it reaches an absurd conclusion or the boxing scene which is not only humorous but also perfectly choreographed and executed—but it also arrives at a genuinely emotional conclusion.
When it comes down to it, the situations in which The Tramp finds himself in (or just as often, creates for himself) are absurd and transparently engineered, but it’s his reaction and the reactions of the people around him that make City Lights stand out in his filmography. It relies less on the set pieces than smaller moments which make it one of Chaplin’s best and most enduring films—the two funniest bits for me: 1) The Tramp trying to endear himself to his competitor before the boxing match, smiling innocently, and 2) his look of indignation as he gets back in the Rolls Royce, dressed to the nines, after having just pushed over a homeless man to pick up a discarded cigar butt off the sidewalk.