Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
City Lights (1931)
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City Lights (1931), subtitled "A Comedy Romance in Pantomime," has generally been viewed as Charlie Chaplin's greatest film - it was 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 included 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 presented 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 was the quintessential Chaplin film - with superb examples of Chaplin's (the Tramp's) acting and artistic genius.

The film's theme concerned 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 an eccentric millionaire. He persuaded both of them that life was worth living. Both characters could not "see" him or recognize him for what he was. However, the Tramp functioned as a savior and wish-fulfiller for both of them. For the blind flower girl, he masqueraded as a wealthy duke in her mind, and for the drunk millionaire, the Tramp repeatedly saved the man's life and provided a congenial friend.

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

Plot Synopsis

Peace and Prosperity:

The film opened to define and introduce the Tramp character and satirically mock the proceedings of a public presentation - the opening scene functioned as a clever in-joke against 'talking' films.

In the big city, an ugly monument to Peace and Prosperity was dramatically unveiled before an assembled, dignified civic group. A boring speech was being presented at a microphone by a stereotypical, pompous Establishment figure. Instruments were substituted as voices to parody and make fun of talking films and the speaking characters. A quacking, kazoo-sound played as the voice of the Mayor (Henry Bergman), imitating the rhythm and intonation of a typical political speech that had little intelligible content. When a female civic leader also approached the microphone and began her speech, a similar garble and squawking was heard, only with a higher feminine register.

When the dust sheet was lifted and removed from the Greco-Roman stone statue, it revealed the black-clothed little Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) blissfully sleeping in the central figure's lap. His presence in the lap of the female statue dirtied the purity of its whiteness. The crowd was taken aback and officially outraged by the vagrant who had usurped decorum and chosen to be the recipient of their civic benevolence. The Tramp slowly awakened, scratched, stretched, and then became aware of the audience. He embarrassingly made an effort to extricate himself and climb down off the statue, but the sword of one of the three statues had impaled and hooked him - stuck up the back of his pants. As the National Anthem - the Star Spangled Banner - was heard, the Tramp took off his hat in respect, but had difficulty finding his footing and standing at full attention, and awkwardly stuck his rear end into the face of the sword-bearing statue. As he continued to crawl off the large statue, his profile with his own nose next to the statue's huge outspread hand created a classic image - a monumental nose-thumbing gesture.

An Afternoon Stroll:

After retreating from the public square by climbing over a fence, the Tramp took a walk down the street in the busy city. He rebuked two newspaper boys on a street corner who taunted him and stole his cane and made fun of his tattered, shabby clothes. He removed the ragged tips of his gloves to resonately snap his fingers in their faces. He stopped along the way in front of a shop window and became a discerning connoisseur. The Tramp tried 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 became pre-occupied with the inanimate statue, not seeing what was behind him.

[Note: This scene foreshadowed his preoccupation with the Blind Girl and the predicaments he became involved in during his association with her.]

He narrowly missed falling into the opening and closing vent of a freight elevator platform behind him. Fortuitously, the platform came flush with the sidewalk every time his foot came down in a teasing sight gag. And then when he became caught on the descending platform and half sank out of sight, he scrambled back to safety on the sidewalk level. After waiting for the elevator to rise to criticize a workman (Tiny Ward), he scolded with an accusatory finger while the man was riding up to his waistline. But then when the elevator reached its full height, the tall workman towered over him. The cowardly Tramp tipped his hat and quickly found a way to exit the scene.

The Flower Girl:

The next scene was introduced with a close-up of a bouquet of flowers and the face of a beautiful Blind Girl (Virginia Cherrill) selling flowers from her basket on the sidewalk. While avoiding a motorcycle policeman, the Tramp entered and exited an expensive parked vehicle in a traffic jam, right in front of the flower girl. She heard the car's door slam, assuming the occupant was a rich millionaire. She offered him a flower, a boutonniere. His first reaction was a flirtatious one (before he learned she was blind). He was smitten by her and gave 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 thought he had left in the vehicle (she heard another car door slam) without asking for his change, he tiptoed back to sit silently. Entranced, he watched her adoringly. As she changed the water for her flowers at the fountain, she unknowingly threw a bucket of dirty water from a rinsed-out container in his face.

The Flower Girl returned home in a good mood that evening - she lived at home with her be-spectacled, shawled grandmother (Florence Lee). Once at home, the blind girl turned on the victrola, watered her potted flowers at the window, and took down her caged bird. At her window, she dreamt and longed for more visits from the "millionaire."

Night of Adventure:

Later that night, a drunk, suicidal and depressed Eccentric Millionaire (Harry Myers) was clumsily attempting to take his own life at the harbor. The Tramp entered the scene and descended down steps to the water, to continue mooning over (and smelling) the flower the Blind Girl had sold to him. The Tramp discovered that the distressed man had tied one end of a rope to a large stone and put the noose around his neck. The Tramp advised:

"Tomorrow the birds will sing!"
"Be brave! Face life!"

However, the millionaire refused: "No, I'll end it all!" In the ensuing rescue scene, the Tramp valiantly intervened to prevent the man's determined suicide, but the loop in the rope fell around his neck and pulled him into the river instead. As the drowning Tramp was floundering in the water, he was the one who had to be saved. The millionaire slowly removed his clothes before lending him a hand - and both ended up in the water - twice. Nonetheless, they both succeeded in rescuing each other. After they scrambled ashore, the two became buddies as the millionaire exclaimed: "I'm cured. You're my friend for life." The Tramp gave his characteristic comic leg-shake, and then the millionaire suggested: "We'll go home and get warmed up."

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