City Lights (1931) Director: Charlie Chaplin
City Lights: A Comedy of Romance in Pantomime was released three years after the rise of talkies. It was the lone silent film that was released in 1931 amidst the overwhelming growth in popularity of sound films. Remarkably City Lights not nominated for a single Academy Award.
City Lights is a truly wonderful film -some have suggested it is Chaplin’s best. City Lights is not only a hilarious slapstick comedy, but also a rich satire. It comes highly recommended. Watching the film gives the audience a sense of innocence and ease, despite the extraordinary anguish Chaplin underwent in filming. City Lights is the beautiful encore and swan-song to the end of cinema’s silent era. It is a fascinating and heart-warming reflection on the lights and hopes and fantasies that come with the art of cinema.
Again, Charlie Chaplin reprises his ‘Little Tramp’ character which had appeared in many of his early films until the final appearance of the character in Modern Times. By the time City Lights was released (after years of devotion) the ‘Little Tramp was known the world over as the melodramatic loner -vain, sorrowful, and innocent- who is always seeking safety and security yet endlessly embroiled in pandemonium.
City Lights opens with a satire against talkies as a public official announces a new public monument, though the audience can only hear mumbled noises, and when the tarp is lifted, the Tramp is found sleeping on the monument. After getting stuck on the statue, he walks through the unnamed city (it could be New York, London, Paris, or even Tangiers…) pretending to admire a nude Greco-Roman artwork in a window while narrowly avoiding mishaps in a construction zone.
He then comes upon a blind flower girl (played by 20-year-old Chicago socialite and recent divorcée, Virginia Cherrill) and the Tramp falls in love with her. Later, he befriends a millionaire who is drunk. The Tramp saves him from killing himself in the river. Together, the millionaire and the Tramp return to his mansion and enjoy drinks together before hitting the town in his expensive car. He uses his connection with the millionaire to play the role of a gentleman with the blind girl. He tries to impress her with a car and money. The Tramp promises to pay her rent bill of $22.00.
However, as the wealthy man sobers up, he forgets the Tramp and the Tramp fruitlessly tries to win the money for the girl’s rent in a boxing match. Later the Tramp returns to the drunk millionaire but his house is being robbed. The millionaire gives the Tramp money but when the police arrive, they believe the Tramp has stolen the money. He narrowly escapes and gives the money to the blind girl for her rent, and extra for a surgery surgery to cure her blindness, but the Tramp reminds her that he must go away for awhile (much to the dismay of the audience). After time passes the Tramp is let out of prison, he gets into a scuffle on the street and then finds his love who has opened a new flower shop. The film closes as she recognizes him and he smiles. It is one of the most beautiful moments in all of film. All throughout his life the Tramp is a shabby outcast, unseen by many and relegated to the social periphery, until this blind girl suddenly sees him, at the twilight of his cinematic career. All throughout his time on silver screen we (the audience) have seen the Tramp merely as voyeurs, but now there is hope: the Tramp knows he has finally been seen.
City Lights was one of Chaplin’s greatest undertakings – it took him over two years to complete the project. First, the story evolved from being about a blind clown which evolved into the character of a blind girl. Many years later, Chaplin would fondly remember the “magic” behind the scene where the blind girl’s sight is restored, even though Virginia Cherrill was the only actress Chaplin never developed romantic sympathies with.
Instead of finally revealing the voice of the Little Tramp on film, Chaplin elected to produce another silent film, but he did compose the synchronized score for City Lights to great renown. At the premiere in Los Angeles, Chaplin brought Albert Einstein as his guest, and in London George Bernard Shaw was Chaplin’s guest.