There’s really no such thing as Chaplin’s best film—maybe his five or six best—but City Lights (1931) is probably as close as you’re going to get to that default title. What is there left to say about this story of the little tramp who sacrifices everything for love of a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) who thinks he’s a millionaire? Probably not much—except that if you’ve never seen it, your cinematic education is wanting. And if you have seen it, it’s worth seeing again. It is probably Chaplin’s most perfect blend of comedy and pathos. Since Chaplin distrusted talkies and felt that sound would kill the appeal of his Tramp character, he steadfastly insisted on making City Lights as a silent, but he didn’t entirely eschew sound. Not only did it allow him the solution to why the girl thinks the Tramp’s a millionaire, but it allowed him to compose and control the music for the film’s soundtrack—managing to get the best of both worlds, and have a huge hit at a time when the talkies were ruling the day.
Chaplin is a key figure in film history. Along with D.W. Griffith, he was the first filmmaker who could truly be called an artist—but he was an artist whose greatest instrument was his own screen persona. Part of the joy and genius of Chaplin lies in watching him move—and not just his Tramp character, but any character. Even in his later films, it’s always Chaplin—always his movements, expression, body language—who you can’t take your eyes off. Check out the 68-year-old Chaplin in A King in New York (1957). It’s impossible not to watch him in fascinated admiration. One need only look at his last film, the much maligned (and unfairly so) A Countess from Hong Kong (1967). There he kept himself offscreen and tried to turn both Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren into versions of himself and his movements. They give it a game try, but they’re simply not Chaplin.
He was also unique among the silent comedians in that he was neither afraid of sentiment and drama, nor was he afraid of ideas. This aspect played against him in the 1970s when the silent comics were being seriously reassessed. Chaplin’s Dickensian sense of pathos was seen as old-fashioned, while Keaton’s impassive, almost surreal comedy looked more modern to many people. I never got that. Keaton always struck me—and continues to strike me—as marvelously clever. I marvel at that cleverness, but I rarely laugh and I certainly never feel anything. With Chaplin I laugh and I feel something. Maybe that’s because I got to see all his work from 1918 through 1957 on the big screen and with an audience, but it’s true in any case.
See for yourself. City Lights is a great place to start, if you’re a novice, but then so would The Gold Rush (1925), The Circus (1928), or Modern Times (1936) be. And those could be followed nicely with his later—more idea-driven—works: The Great Dictator (1940), Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Limelight (1952), and A King in New York (1957). Oh, hell, they all should be seen.