Directed by: Charles Chaplin
Written by: Charles Chaplin
Starring: Charles Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Harry Myers, Florence Lee
(87 minutes, B&W)
The movie is silent because it has no need for sound. When it was released in 1931, talkies were becoming increasingly popular and had veeb for several years. Chaplin, despite the successes of his previous silent features, pressure to create City Lights with audible dialogue. The comic genius's popularity, coupled with the fact that he was his own distributor, helped him to overpower the studio's wishes, and it's a good thing he did (though he did consent to recording a score for the film, which he composed himself). Anyone who watches the film will understand how terrible an error it would have been to create City Lights with voices. The message of the movie is that love and creativity flourish in simplicity and honesty. Nothing could be more honest than Chaplin's "Little Tramp." The character is universally appealing in all nations and languages. Not only did we rarely hear him speak, he rarely ever spoke. What did Chaplin think of talkies? He showed the audience with an early scene in City Lights, where, at the unveiling of a monument, bureaucrats triumphantly announce its grandeur. What comes out of their mouths? Unintelligible sqwaks. With the defining success of City Lights both at the box office and with the critics, Chaplin proved that people are consistently touched by humor and heart, with or without sound.
The movie follows The Tramp as he becomes involved in a series of misadventures during his wanderings around the city. Rude newsboys torment him, but the Tramp is gracious. He happens upon a blind young woman (Virginia Cherrill) selling flowers. The Tramp kindly buys a flower, but through a misunderstanding and perfect timing, the woman believes the Tramp to be a kind millionaire. He doesn't correct her. He moves on. His trips through the city fill the movie with a cast of memorable supporting characters. A drunken millionaire wants to drown himself in a river. The Tramp saves him, but not without first repeatedly plunging himself in and out of the chilly water. Wet and tired, the millionaire and the Tramp become companions...until the millionaire sobers up in the morning.
The Tramp encounters the flower girl once again. Pulling his strings with the once again intoxicated millionaire, the Tramp buys all of her flowers and drives her home to her grandmother in a Rolls Royce. This reinforces her misconception that the Tramp is rich, but by this time the Tramp can say nothing; he is in love with her. He visits the flower girl frequently, always when her grandmother is away. The subtle comedy and gentle humanity of their scenes together bring a smile to the faces of everyone in the audience, but also tears in the eyes. This is where Chaplin's genius resides: he is not only able to make us laugh, but also make us feel subtle heartbreak.
The girl and her grandmother fall into financial troubles, and the Tramp decides to get a job to support them. This leads to several comic misadventures that are among Chaplin's most famous scenes: the Tramp's run-in with the police at the millionaire's mansion, and a "fixed" boxing sequence, where the match goes horribly wrong and the Tramp must use his improbably quick footing to keep the referee always between himself and his opponent. Another comic sequence comes at the beginning of the movie, when an uproar caused by The Tramp snoozing on a Greco-Roman statue is interrupted by the playing of the National Anthem. The commotion suddenly halts and The Tramp (who inconveniently has a metal sword, part of the statue, through the seat of his pants), must try to stand erect for the Star Spangled Banner despite the fact that he has no even footing.
City Lights was the first silent movie I ever watched, and holds a special place in my heart as such. I trust it will hold a similar place in the memories of whoever watches it. This is the kind of movie that reminds you how pure and soulful film can be; wholesome and good-natured, but capable of pulling out the level of emotion normally reserved for more mature, epic pictures. Orson Welles named City Lights as his favorite film, and it is always listed as one of the greatest movies ever made, without fail. It represents the pinnacle of his career, at which he was able to make money, please the producers, and connect with his audience at a pure and fundamental level. There's a reason you'll hear from everyone that the final scene of City Lights is among the most moving they've ever seen.
Chaplin commented on it himself: "In City Lights, the last scene...I'm not acting...Almost apologetic, standing outside myself and looking. It's a beautiful scene, beautiful because it isn't overacted." Chaplin was a perfectionist of a filmmaker, and the fact that this is his favorite of his films is likely due to its committed production. The shooting length for this film was longer than any of Chaplin's other films, and the first scene where the Tramp meets the blind flower girl was allegedly shot over 300 times.
Chaplin and Cherrill didn't get along, and Cherrill was even fired at one point for failing to show up to the set on time. More than fifty years later, Cherrill commented, "Charlie never liked me and I never liked Charlie." But even after replacing Cherrill and planning re-shoots of the flower girl scenes with Georgia Hale, his co-star in The Gold Rush, Chaplin was able to appreciate Cherrill's performance. After hiring her back (at twice her original salary), Chaplin was pleased with her ability to give the impression of blindness. Allegedly this skillfull performance was based off of advice Chaplin gave to Cherrill: "Look inwardly, and don't see me." One can see part of the final scene, re-shot with Hale as the flower girl, online or on the DVD release. It's good that Cherrill wasn't replaced; Hale lacks her innocence and gentility.
Many people compare Chaplin and the other great American film director of his time, Buster Keaton. I think it is fruitless to do so. They both made silent comedies, but in a very different grain. Keaton's movies are comically intelligent and technically brilliant, and their stunts are on a grander scale. His characters never stop moving. Chaplin's movies are intimate human stories more than slapstick comedies. Whereas Keaton's characters move constantly at an almost manic pace, Chaplin's stop to ponder. They are perpetual outsiders, viewing life quietly and occasionally hopping in and out of its midst. Chaplin's humor is always at service to his heart, and his stories are universally acknowledged as intimate and personal. Both he and Keaton are geniuses, and among the greatest directors of all time, but I respond more to Chaplin's work. City Lights is my favorite, because of its genuine sentimentality.
If this review seems like a gushing of sentimental praise, that's only because those are the feelings this movie evokes in me. I can't find a single flaw in it, and I would dare anyone to try, This is the kind of movie that wins you over completely almost from the first frame. It's the reason we go to movies in the first place. I would love to watch City Lights with kids. They don't care whether a movie is in black and white or color, or whether the characters talk or not. The little things don't matter. They pick up on the primal goods that film as to offer: warmth, humor, characterization, and plot. Why can't adults possess the same characteristics?
I wish I lived in Chaplin's silent world, where nothing is diluted or contorted. What you see is what you get. It's that simplicity, that cheerful glimpse of how perfect life can be, that makes his films so enduring. Who has time for silent movies anymore? Hardly anyone, it seems. We're all distracted by the big booms and glamour of blockbuster Hollywood to slowly work our ways back into the past, but it's when we do take the time that we learn and uncover treasures.
City Lights is obviously unrated by the MPAA, and it contains no material unsuitable for children.