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'City Lights,' 1931
Charlie Chaplin befriends a tippling mogul (Harry Myers) who recognizes him only when he's drunk and a blind flower girl ( Virginia Cherrill) who realizes he's a tramp only in the final scene. This saga of the Little Fellow in the Big City is lilting slapstick poetry, an extended tragicomic riff on the theme of urban anonymity. As the tramp tries to save the girl from eviction and restore her sight, the movie rises above its pathos to become a celebration of living by your wits -- something that Chaplin's exhilarating physicality allows the audience to experience under the skin. (The comic was never more hilarious than in the scene in which he enters a prize fight and uses the referee as a moving shield.) And even if you don't share James Agee's opinion, you can understand why he called the moment of truth between the cured flower girl and the tramp "the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies." Chaplin directed, wrote and scored this masterpiece of silent comedy.
Pictured: United Artists founders Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and D.W. Griffith (left to right)