Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
City Lights (1931)
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City Lights (1931), subtitled "A Comedy Romance in Pantomime," is generally viewed as Charlie Chaplin's greatest film - a "silent film" released three years after the start of the talkies era of sound. The melodramatic film, a combination of pathos, slapstick and comedy, was a tribute to the art of body language and pantomime - a lone hold-out against the assault of the talking film.

It was well known that Chaplin preferred the silent art form to the advent of sound films. Chaplin was responsible for the film's production, direction, editing, music, and screenplay (although assisted by Harry Crocker, Henry Bergman, and Albert Austin).

The episodic film includes a complete musical soundtrack and various sound effects - but no speech or dialogue. Incredibly, Chaplin's film was not nominated for a single Academy Award - to the pro-talking film Academy members, it must have appeared to be reversing the trend toward talkies and advanced sound films.

The tale of blind love again presents the famous Little Tramp character - an outcast, homeless man with his baggy pants, tight coat, cane, large shoes and small hat who first appeared in 1914 (and gave his final appearance in Modern Times (1936)). This 'silent' film is the quintessential Chaplin film - with superb examples of Chaplin's (the Tramp's) acting and artistic genius.

The film's theme concerns the consequences (and suffering) resulting from the Tramp's attachment and efforts to aid a blind girl (and restore her sight with money for an operation) and a millionaire, as he persuades both of them that life is worth living. Both characters cannot "see" him or recognize him for what he is. However, the Tramp functions as a savior and wish-fulfiller for the blind flower girl while masquerading as a wealthy duke. For the drunk millionaire, the Tramp repeatedly saves the man's life and provides a congenial friend.

[Note: Baby-faced comic Harry Langdon's best feature film in a short four-year film career, that was also director Frank Capra's feature-film debut, was The Strong Man (1926) - it predated Chaplin's City Lights (1931) by several years with its plot of a meek man in love with a blind woman.]

The Story

The film opens with "Peace and Prosperity" to define and introduce the Tramp character and satirically mock the proceedings of a public presentation - a clever in-joke against 'talking' films. In the big city, an ugly monument to Peace and Prosperity is dramatically unveiled before an assembled, dignified civic group. A boring speech is being presented at a microphone by a stereotypical, pompous Establishment figure. Instruments are used as voices to parody and make fun of talking films and the characters. A quacking, kazoo-sound is substituted for the voice of the mayor, imitating the rhythm and intonation of a typical political speech that has little intelligible content. When a female civic leader approaches the microphone and begins her speech, a similar garble and squawking is heard, only with a higher feminine register.

When the dust sheet is lifted and removed from the Greco-Roman stone statue, it reveals the black-clothed little Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) blissfully sleeping in the central figure's lap. His presence in the lap of the female statue dirties the purity of its whiteness. The crowd is taken aback and officially outraged by the vagrant who has usurped decorum and chosen to be the recipient of their civic benevolence. The Tramp slowly awakens, scratches, stretches, and then becomes aware of the audience. He embarrassingly makes an effort to extricate himself and climb down off the statue, but the sword of one of the three statues has impaled and hooked him - stuck up the back of his pants. As the National Anthem - the Star Spangled Banner - is heard, the Tramp takes off his hat in respect, but has difficulty finding his footing and standing at full attention. As he continues to crawl off the large statue, his profile with his own nose next to the statue's huge outspread hand creates a classic image - a monumental nose-thumbing gesture.

In "An Afternoon Stroll," the Tramp takes a walk down the street in the busy city. He rebukes two newspaper boys who taunt him, take his cane and make fun of his tattered, shabby clothes. He removes the ragged tips of his gloves to resonately snap his fingers in their faces. He stops along the way in front of a shop window and becomes a discerning connoisseur. The Tramp tries to conceal his interest in a female nude statue in the window by pretending to be an aesthetic art critic. Stepping back and forth on the sidewalk, ostensibly searching for the perfect perspective, he becomes pre-occupied with the inanimate statue, not seeing what is behind him. [This scene foreshadows his preoccupation with the Blind Girl and the predicaments he gets involved in during his association with her.] He narrowly misses falling into the opening and closing vent of a freight elevator behind him. Fortuitously, the platform comes flush with the sidewalk every time his foot comes down in a teasing sight gag. And then when he gets caught on the descending platform and half sinks out of sight, he scrambles back to safety. As he waits for the elevator to rise to criticize the workman, he scolds the man with an accusatory finger when the man rides up to his waistline. When the elevator reaches its full height and the tall man towers over him, he tips his hat and quickly finds a way to exit the scene.

In "the Flower Girl," he enters and exits an expensive parked limousine in a traffic jam to avoid a motorcycle policeman. There in front of him is a beautiful flower-selling Blind Girl (Virginia Cherrill). She hears the limo door slam, assuming he is a rich millionaire. She offers him a flower, a boutonniere - his first reaction is a flirtatious one (before he learns she is blind). He is smitten by her and gives her his last coin for the single flower for his buttonhole. [Note: According to Guinness World Records, this sequence took 342 takes to make - the most retakes for one scene.]

Then, after she thinks he has left in a limo (she hears another limo door slam) without asking for his change, he tiptoes back to sit silently. Entranced, he watches her adoringly. As she changes the water for her flowers at the fountain, she unknowingly throws a bucket of dirty water from a rinsed-out container in his face. The Flower Girl goes home that evening - she lives at home with her be-spectacled, shawled grandmother (Florence Lee). Once at home, the blind girl turns on the victrola, waters her potted flowers at the window, and takes down her caged bird. At her window, she dreams and longs for more visits from him.

That "Night of Adventure," a drunk and depressed Eccentric Millionaire (Harry Myers) is clumsily attempting to take his own life at the harbor. The Tramp comes down the steps and moons over (and smells) the flower the Blind Girl gave him. The Tramp finds that the man has tied one end of a rope to a large stone and put the noose around his neck. The Tramp advises: "Tomorrow the birds will sing!" and "Be brave! Face life!" In the ensuing rescue scene, the Tramp valiantly intervenes to prevent the man's determined suicide, but the loop in the rope falls around his neck and pulls him into the river instead. The Tramp almost drowns and he is the one who must be saved. Both of them end up in the water, but the Tramp has succeeded in rescuing the man from drowning himself. After they scramble ashore, the Tramp gives his characteristic comic leg-shake. The two become buddies, and the millionaire exclaims: "I'm cured. You're my friend for life."

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