The Best Moments in Film: the girl recognizes the tramp

City Lights love

{ May Contain Spoilers !! }

In the century-long history of cinema, few have had the vision and the genius of Mr. Charlie Chaplin, a maker of magical moments that has inspired generations of aspiring artists to join the film-making industry. His contribution to the medium is without question, forever shaping the evolution of cinema and showing audiences around the world that film was full of possibility, a new artistic medium for the 20th century.

To most of us, Chaplin is one of the pioneers of physical comedy (alongside other heavyweights like Buster Keaton). Unfortunately, audiences have forgotten how Chaplin was also the author and producer of powerful human stories that were full of heart and charm.

In the long collection of indelible pieces of film he helped create, City Lights is commonly (and deservedly) referred to as his most important contribution to the medium. Released in 1931, well after “talkies” began to gain traction in Hollywood, City Lights was a box-office and critics darling, celebrated for its irony, its comedic genius and, most of all, for an unforgettable ending that is truly timeless, wrapping up a story that celebrates true love.

City Lights pier

What Chaplin did at the end of City Lights is not only moving but simple and unavoidable. An ending we wish for all along and that we end up getting, but that is surprising nonetheless due to its simplicity and heart. It’s the greatest moment of Chaplin’s famous Tramp, a historic figure that related to those who are less fortunate among us, showing audiences that even the moneyless, the unfortunate and the homeless have a shot at happiness. His Tramp in City Lights is a loveable character, one who is truly in love with a blind flower girl. He’s the hero of the tale, a selfless gentleman who is more than willing to sacrifice himself to give the girl he loves the future she deserves. His poor streak of luck in the name of love makes the emotional punch of the last scene all the more moving.

When I first watched City Lights I had purposely avoided all kinds of synopsis about the film. I had only read reviews on it from well-respected critics. All I was certain about was that the ending was one of the most famous in the history of film. With all of the praise taken into account, I approached the film with trepidation, fully aware that I was bound to be disappointed. After all, I had no previous experience with Chaplin. I only knew of his Tramp in passing, from an assortment of clips that have lingered in the collective memory of cinema. Though I can’t truly say City Lights is one of my favorite films, I certainly recognize its genius, the craftsmanship and composition of every shot, and the power of that last famous scene, where a blind girl who is no longer blind recognizes her hero with a simple touch. It isn’t until this very last scene that I truly understood Chaplin’s insistence to make the film silent. The last bits of dialogue, two lines to be precise, pack a remarkable power that is enhanced by seeing the words on the screen, forcing the audience to take a few seconds to read and understand the importance of the moment.

It is a moment we desire for because Chaplin has made us care about his characters. The Tramp may not have riches, but he makes up for it by having a big loveable heart.


City Lights last line

2 thoughts on “The Best Moments in Film: the girl recognizes the tramp

  1. I love City Lights so much. It mixes humor, a satire on the class system, and romance so well. That last scene is interesting because you can read her “I can see now” line in different ways. Yes, they look happy, but does she really mean they’re going to be together? I’m not really sure. I’d like to think it’s a happy ending, but you just never know.

  2. Superb analysis of one of my favorite scenes in film history. This was my first Chaplin film, and while I was watching it, I kept reminding myself of all he had to do to achieve what I was watching. But noting that, I wasn’t as impressed as I hoped I might be.

    Then came the ending, and I was too shocked to do anything but sit with my jaw hanging open. I immediately watched the film again and everything just clicked. A timeless masterpiece.

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