City Lights (1931)
Release Date: March 7th, 1931 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Charles Chaplin Actors: Charles Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Harry Myers, Hank Mann, Florence Lee
ity Lights” is simplistically labeled “a comedy romance in pantomime” by the initial title card; it cannot, however, be adequately described with such elementariness. Perfectly blending slapstick comedy, reckless adventure, tear-jerking drama, chivalrous romance, a universally appealing story, enduring music, and unforgettable characters, it is not only Chaplin’s greatest achievement, but also one of the most superlative films of all time. As has been noted frequently since its release, “City Lights” features perhaps the most incomparable, unparalleled, sublimely poignant ending of any theatrical movie – an astonishing feat for a silent film released during the sound era, let alone one that was directed, produced, edited, musically composed, written by, and starring the same man.
A stone monument dedicated to the people of the city is unveiled, revealing a disgracefully snoozing tramp (Charlie Chaplin) perched high atop. It’s an encompassing introduction, heralding the return of a very familiar character and his trademark apparel and slapstick. But this particular portrayal involves quite a bit more than physical follies; this film gives him the most prominent love interest the character has ever encountered (as well as the most strikingly pitiable counterpart to his memorable gamin companions). While strolling along the sidewalk, the tramp meets a blind girl (Virginia Cherrill) selling flowers – and she makes a marked impression on the love-struck vagrant.
Later that evening, the tramp stumbles upon an eccentric, drunk, suicidal millionaire (Harry Myers), who he unwittingly befriends while foiling the wealthy man’s plot to off himself. The duo goes back to the elite’s luxurious estate and, after a few more drinks, the fat cat takes his new, penniless acquaintance out (in a Rolls Royce) for a night on the town. Here, Chaplin conducts a series of well-orchestrated, superbly timed, hilariously choreographed skits. His mishaps continue as the following day (paired with a clearer head) finds the moneyed man oblivious to the previous night’s events. The rest of the film follows the hobo’s plight as the opulent alcoholic totters in and out of sobriety (resulting in perpetual reversals of fortune), the flower girl remains confused as to the tramp’s true identity (she believes he is the rich individual), and he becomes consumed with the desire to fund an operation to fix her eyesight (even if it means getting a real job).
Although one could nitpick Cherrill’s largely unconvincing, stereotypically inaccurate imitation of blindness, or the lack of highly successful connecting visual jokes (save for Chaplin’s boxing routine, which exquisitely matches the most famous moments from “The Gold Rush” and “Modern Times”), or even sketches that seem to go nowhere (such as the tramp slurping spaghetti at dinner), “City Lights” is wrought with carefully planned emotional drama and harmonious romanticism, which makes the love story undeniably profound and the character interactions just that much more powerful. It’s also a compelling contrast to the dimwitted buffoonery that fills the gaps. There’s a heartwarming motive, a competent message of unconditional human kindness, and the movingly potent theme that, in tandem with the certainty in which Chaplin’s tramp sacrifices his wellbeing to aid the flower girl, love is blind.
– Mike Massie