Chaplin in "City Lights"
The regalia of Charlie Chaplin’s most familiar on-screen persona, The Tramp—the threadbare and ill-fitting clothes, diminutive derby, precarious cane, and that expressive toothbrush mustache—have become tightly entwined in the public mind with the filmmaker himself, and with the traditions of silent-era cinema generally. For this reason, even cinephiles can be forgiven for sometimes forgetting that Chaplin was not only a vital and phenomenally successful actor, but also a producer, director, writer, and composer, not to mention a genuine worldwide celebrity in an era when such a thing was much more remarkable. Chaplin’s flair for blending comedy and pathos established him as one of the great humanist artists of the early twentieth century, drawing audiences in times of prosperity, depression, and war.
Throughout March, the Webster Film Series will be offering a refresher course in Chaplin’s profound and diverse talents with screenings of eight of his most celebrated self-directed feature films, spanning more than three decades: The Kid, The Gold Rush, The Circus, City Lights, Modern Times, The Great Dictator, Monsieur Verdoux, and Limelight. Each film will be screened for one night only from a new 35-mm print. The series kicks off this Friday with City Lights: A Comedy Romance in Pantomime, Chaplin’s first feature to utilize synchronized sound, but still made within silent-era conventions. In telling the comical and poignant story of a Tramp and the damsel he loves—purely, deeply, and across a gulf of class and circumstance—Chaplin relies upon the slapstick, pantomime, and theatrical acting style that had established him as a star. By 1931, these elements were already quaint, but City Lights proved to be an enormous hit with Depression-era audiences, and other filmmakers and critics would eventually come to regard the film as one of Chaplin’s triumphs, an exquisite example of his superb talent for both physical comedy and earnest sentimentality.
City Lights screens Friday night, March 24, at 7:30 p.m. at the Webster University Moore Auditorium. Admission is $6 (cash only). For a complete schedule of the Chaplin feature films, visit the Webster Film Series' website.
St. Louis native Andrew Wyatt is the founder of the film aficionado website Gateway Cinephiles, where he has been an editor and contributor since 2007, authoring reviews, essays, and coverage of the St. Louis International Film Festival and Webster Film Series.