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City Lights (1931)

December 15th, 2006 · 3 Comments

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In an unnamed big city, a dignified civic group is set to unveil a monument dedicated to “Peace and Prosperity.” The event goes awry when the sheet is pulled back to reveal a Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) sleeping in the statue’s lap. He tries to climb down but his baggy pants get caught, and he ends up mocking the ceremony before slipping away.

Bopping around the city in his tight coat, large shoes and small hat, the Tramp climbs into a limousine to avoid a police officer. He steps out, and there on the sidewalk is a beautiful Blind Girl (Virginia Cherrill) selling flowers. She assumes the Tramp belongs with the car and offers him a flower. He’s smitten with her, and gives her his last coin for a flower on his lapel.

While the Blind Girl goes home to her grandmother, turns on the victrola and dreams of another visit from her prince, the Tramp encounters an Eccentric Millionaire attempting to throw himself into the harbor. The Tramp saves his life and becomes the drunken Millionaire’s new friend. He’s invited back to the man’s mansion and then out for a wacky night on the town.

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The next morning, the Tramp sees the Blind Girl. With a wad of cash from the Millionaire, he purchases all of her flowers. Then the Tramp borrows his friend’s car and drives the girl home. She’s flattered by his attention but mistakenly believes him to be rich. Unfortunately, whenever the Millionaire sobers up, he doesn’t remember who the Tramp is. Undeterred, our hero makes it his mission in life to restore the Blind Girl’s sight.

Written and directed by Charles Chaplin, City Lights is subtitled “a comedy romance in pantomime.” It was released three years after the advent of sound, but Chaplin – who was also responsible for the film’s art design, editing and music – completed and released it as a silent film, despite pressure from the industry to make it a talkie.

The AFI recently ranked this #76 on their list of the 100 greatest American movies of all time. Orson Welles had called it his favorite film of all time, while in the mid-’60s, Stanley Kubrick placed it at #5 on his list of favorites. It’s viewed by many others as the quintessential Chaplin film, a masterpiece in slapstick comedy, romance and pantomime.

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It’s impossible to argue with any of that. City Lights is amazing. Without even reading that much into it, it’s a great comedy. I laughed out loud more times than I can remember. The Tramp’s inebriated visit to a danceclub, where he confuses party string for pasta, then gets a bit saucy and whirls a woman around the dance floor until he falls down, cracked me up every time I watched it.

A boxing sequence – with Chaplin, the ref and a prizefighter moving in perfect comic synchronization – is a big highlight. Even more hilarious is a scene where the Tramp swallows a whistle and disrupts a recital with his chirping hiccups. He removes himself from polite society, but ends up attracting every dog in the neighborhood and busts up the performance when he runs back in.

The Tramp is one of the most recognizable figures in the movies. Any visit to Hollywood will find Chaplin among James Dean and Marilyn Monroe as the icons most associated with Tinseltown. These are images of mystique and romance, and the Tramp belongs in that class. There’s something about a guy who doesn’t follow the rules of society, yet has a heart, and manages to treat others better than they treat him, that resonates universally.

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City Lights has an episodic structure that follows the Tramp as he shuffles around town, falls in love with the Blind Girl, becomes friends with an Eccentric Millionaire, and the consequences – and suffering – that result. One is blind, the other is sober only half the time. Neither see him for who he really is, but he persuades them both that life is worth living.

The film has one of the best climaxes of all time. The Tramp is released from a nine month jail stint and crosses paths with the Blind Girl. Simple expressions and ten words exchanged between them on title cards said more to me than anything put into the theaters recently.

When I think of silent movies, I think scratchy, unwatchable film and lots of melodrama, but few, if any, modern day romantic comedies can compare to the beauty of this film.

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Tags: Drunk scene · Golden Age of Hollywood · Silent

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 andrea // Apr 12, 2007 at 8:24 pm

    just read chaplin’s autobiography. well done. great read. never seen any of his movies. netflix to the rescue.

  • 2 Cynthia // May 27, 2008 at 5:07 am

    great!, i watched this movie in my film class, and i think its is amazing….
    *thumbs up*

  • 3 Avinash VSARK Kapoor // Dec 11, 2010 at 4:56 am

    this is most beautiful movie forever…i like this movie…and i know that how to make love story movie and expression.

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