City Lights (1931) Review

City Lights (1931) Director: Charlie Chaplin (1931) Review

“You can see now?”

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★★★★★

City Lights: A Comedy of Romance in Pantomime was released three years after the rise of talkies. It was the lone silent film released in 1931 amidst an overwhelming wave of popularity for sound films. However, despite being an old-style vaudevillian silent picture, Chaplin’s pantomime language in City Lights is universal, beloved both by young and old audiences. Remarkably City Lights was not nominated for a single Academy Award despite it being hailed as a classic and one of Charlie Chaplin’s favorites in his filmography. And for many, including myself, City Lights represents the summit of his craft.

Again, Charlie Chaplin reprises his “Little Tramp” character for the penultimate time until his final appearance in Modern Times in 1936. By the time City Lights was released (after years of devotion) the Little Tramp was known the world over as cinema’s most recognizable melodramatic loner –a vain, sorrowful, and innocent vagabond– always seeking the safety, security, and happiness of others while endlessly embroiled in his own pandemonium. He is forever impoverished, neglected, exploited and yet he ceaselessly shuffles onward into the sunset. Perhaps in a certain sense the Tramp is a romantic reflection of Chaplin, himself. The Tramp is a reminder of the squalid poverty from which Chaplin arose, and yet he is also a pleasant little fellow whose life is simple, amusing, open to the world, and free from all the trappings of wealth and celebrity.

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 dimly-lit hopes and fantasies that come with the art of cinema. Only through the eyes of a blind girl can people truly see the Little Tramp for his honesty, innocence, and good nature. In City Lights, the only people who can truly see the Tramp are impaired: a blind girl, or a drunken millionaire. Even the ever-burning lights of a modern city cannot illuminate the plight of this benighted homeless flaneur.

City Lights opens with a satire of talkie movies. We see a portly public official as he announces the unveiling of a new public monument to “peace and prosperity.” When he speaks his voice is muffled as if speaking from a kazoo, and when the tarp is lifted, there we find the Tramp sleeping on the monument. As he tries to escape his pants are caught in the statue’s sword (the monument is reminiscent of ones on display in London which Chaplin would have no doubt known in his youth). When the Tramp finally breaks free, he walks around the unnamed city in a series of beautiful shots (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 directly behind him.

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 drunken millionaire when he accidentally saves the man from killing himself beside the shadow-lit river. Together, the millionaire and the Tramp return to his mansion where they enjoy drinks before hitting the town in his expensive car. He uses his connection with the millionaire to play the role of a rich gentleman to impress the blind girl. The Tramp promises to pay her rent bill of $22.00.

However, as the wealthy man sobers up in the mornings, he forgets about the Tramp. Unfortunately, the Tramp is forced to seek out money to pay the girl’s rent by other means. He fruitlessly tries to win the money for the girl’s promised rent in a boxing match scheme -he makes a deal with his opponent that they will throw the fight and split the money 50/50, but at the last moment his opponent is changed to someone else and the Tramp is knocked out. Later the Tramp happens upon the drunken millionaire again. The millionaire gives the Tramp money needed for the blind girl’s rent, but just then the millionaire is knocked on the head by burglars. When the police arrive, they believe the Tramp is the true thief. The Tramp narrowly escapes and gives the money to the blind girl to pay her rent, plus some extra money for a surgery surgery to cure her blindness, but the Tramp reminds her that he must go away for a while (much to the dismay of the audience as the Tramp is imprisoned).

After time passes, the months change from January all the way until season of Autumn, the Tramp is let out of prison. He wanders the corner where the girl used to sell her flowers, but then he accidentally discovers that she has opened a new flower shop (notably she laughs at his antics first). The film closes as she hands him a flower –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.

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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 one of the only actress Chaplin never developed romantic sympathies with. Apparently the two actually despised each other on-set. They initially met by happenstance, Chaplin found her on the set of a film shoot about bathing women in Santa Monica. While filming City Lights, they battled frequently. At one point Chaplin fired Cherrill only to find himself forced to re-hire her at an increased weekly pay.

City Lights marked the first time Chaplin composed the film score to one of his productions and it was written in six weeks with Arthur Johnston. The main theme “La Violetera” (“Who’ll Buy my Violets”) was used as a leitmotif for the blind flower girl. The song was originally written by Spanish composer José Padilla. Chaplin later lost a lawsuit to Padilla for not crediting him.

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.

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