CITY LIGHTS (1931)

  • Director: Charlie Chaplin
  • Writer: Charlie Chaplin
  • Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Florence Lee, Harry Myers, Al Ernest Garcia
  • Accolades: AFI 2007 Top 100 List (#11), Sight & Sound 2012 Top 100 List (#50), Cahiers du Cinema 2008 Top 100 List (#17)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming on Kanopy (library app), Stream with subscription to HBO Max and The Criterion Channel, Rent or Buy on Amazon Video, YouTube, or AppleTV

Charlie Chaplin’s distinctive “Tramp” character at one time could be considered best known single image, worldwide. It is perhaps the classic example of the biggest appeal of silent movies, that they translate instantly to viewers of any language. But by the time of City Lights, the days of silent films were numbered. Chaplin may have been one of the only stars with enough clout to make a silent film in 1931, four years after 1927’s The Jazz Singer ushered in the sound era. He also had the clout to go full control freak and do nearly every job himself, not just starring but also directing, writing, and even composing the score for City Lights. Today, it is probably his most iconic film.

The plot centers around the attempts of Chaplin’s Tramp to help a blind flowergirl (Virginia Cherrill) that he loves raise the money for an operation to restore her sight. This quest is complicated by a series of hijinks, most prominently involving an eccentric, alcoholic millionaire (Harry Myers), who befriends the Tramp while drunk but doesn’t recognize him when he’s sober. Another extended sequence involves the Tramp entering a boxing match for the paycheck, resulting in a lengthy, slapstick sequence in which he tries to hide behind the referee in the ring.

Though he scorned talkie technology (Chaplin was quoted at the time as saying that he “gave [talkies] three years at the most.”), Chaplin uses the new technology here for his own purposes, including to give the movie its own original score (silent movies usually had someone in the theater playing an organ or piano) and using sound effects for comedic effect. One scene involves the Tramp accidentally swallowing a whistle and attracting an unwanted following of dogs. In the opening scene, he uses the technology to reduce the speeches of politicians to Charlie Brown-esque wah-wah noises. This is Chaplin making fun of the need for talking in movies, saying they’re nothing more than a bunch of noise.

It is interesting to think about the fact that Chaplin grew up in poverty in Victorian London, likely contributing to his future iconic character. When he was 14 (in 1903) his mother was committed to an insane asylum, and he joined a traveling vaudeville troupe. Within five years, the troupe went on tour of America, and he was spotted by some of the earliest film scouts. Chaplin appeared in his first film in 1914 for Keystone Pictures, and soon developed the Tramp. In 1919, he co-founded United Artists with D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks, giving himself complete control over his films.

Chaplin had always been what we today we would call a “control freak” as a director, and being faced with making a silent movie in a talkie world only made him moreso. His directing style apparently involved acting out every part in the movie so the other actors would know what to do, then doing take after take until they mimicked him exactly. After screen-testing numerous female co-stars for the part of the flowergirl and deciding none were quite right, he hired the unknown Virginia Cherrill, who apparently first met him when they had seats next to each other at a boxing match. Apparently he thought that she could more convincingly play a blind person because she was extremely near-sighted without her glasses. Cherrill would later say “I never liked Charlie and he never liked me.” Chaplin apparently shot the scene where their characters’ first meet for three months, then considered replacing her, but decided it would take too long. He spent almost a year in total on filming in an era where it wouldn’t have been unusual to shoot an entire feature in a couple of weeks.

Though this movie is now almost 90 years old, I thought it still worked on a basic level watching it today for the first time. The comedy is based on slapstick, of course, but it’s for most part a “gentle,” thinking man’s slapstick, if there is such a thing. There’s an early scene where Chaplin keeps backing up and moving forward, in that very specific walk, over a grate while he basically ogles a statue (that was what people did for kicks before porn, I guess), and keeps up the “he’s almost falling… oh he’s OK… he’s almost falling…” act up for multiple minutes. He doesn’t just make a joke about getting another statue’s sword stuck up his pants, he stays there while the National Anthem plays and his character desperately tries to stand at attention with a sword up his pants. There are far fewer jokes than you’d see in a modern movie, but those that are there work at least as well.

That said, City Lights didn’t grab hold of me the way I had really hoped it would. I found it more just fun to spend time with. There is something of an ongoing debate among film buffs between those who prefer Charlie Chaplin and those that prefer his contemporary, Buster Keaton (though of course, there were many other silent comedy stars). I have always identified as more of a Keaton guy. Many of Keaton’s gags play more like action sequences (many today will likely recall his much-imitated stunt in which he stands in the exact spot a window will end up as the front of a house falls around him). Chaplin’s play more like dance sequences, as in this movie’s boxing sequence.

Because silent movies require no translation, and don’t use old-timey-sounding dialogue, they can be just as beloved today in China as they were in the US 90 years ago. Roger Ebert often told a story of a public viewing of City Lights during the Venice Film Festival in St. Mark’s Square, when the famous, melodramatic final scene played (the flowergirl sees Chaplin’s face for the first time after her surgery, gradually realizes it’s him, and accepts him for who he is) to widespread weeping, following by an elderly Chaplin suddenly appearing in spotlight on a balcony to a huge standing ovation. It’s hard to imagine what movie from the past seventy years could duplicate this scene.

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