Vic’s Classics – “City Lights” (1931)

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What’s it About?

“The Tramp” struggles to help a blind flower girl he has fallen in love with.

“City Lights”

Directed by Charles Chaplin

10 out of 10

By Vic

Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 film, “City Lights,” a movie he spent over two years perfecting, is among one of the greatest romantic comedies ever put on celluloid. It is a brilliant and timeless romance that is never overtly sentimental or self indulgent. It also marks one of Chaplin’s best performances as “The Tramp.” Here, Chaplin is at the height of his comedic physical prowess. He turns in a slew of phenomenal slapstick pieces that are just as sublime and enriching as the romantic story he projects.  It is this incredibly perpetual story, which has just the right balance, which provokes all the right emotions.

Chaplin plays “The Tramp,” in this “Comedy Romance in Pantomine.” He is still, as always, homeless, down on his luck and tends to sleep in public. Most notably, city sculptures with socialites watching.  As a canvas is pulled off a monument we get a great reveal of The Tramp as he slowly wakes to find everyone watching him. His nearly 5 minute attempt to dislodge himself from the statue is the start of something incredibly funny and rich.

The young and beautiful starlet, Virginia Cherrill plays a young woman who is blind and sells flowers in the street.  She lives with her Grandmother and they just make ends meet by selling flowers to passersby. Eventually, The Tramp, while bumbling about in his travels, runs into her and is immediately smitten and doesn’t realize at first that she is blind. All he know is that she is precious and would like to spend time with her.

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Supplying the comedic element and the central moral epistle is the story that Chaplin gives us about the “Eccentric Millionaire,” played excellently by Harry Myers (The Oklahoma Kid).  Upon saving the affluent stranger from drowning on an abandoned pier under a bridge, The Tramp becomes a close “party” friend of the Millionaire. The only twist here is that whenever The Millionaire is sober he doesn’t recognize The Tramp.

On several occasions they paint the town red (One incredibly funny sequence involves a party with cigars, spaghetti and a riotious dance number) but the next day The Millionaire either gets his servants to kick out or prevent The Tramp from entering his mansion. Here, The Millionaire is explored by Chaplin whenever he is around The Tramp.

He seems to love him when things are jovial but dislikes his company when having to face sober moments. Chaplin deftly inspects the disparities of the relationships in this film. Like always, Chaplin proves that he was a forward thinker and was consistently ahead of his time.

Chaplin makes the best of just about everything here. He scored the vibrant music and even though the poor working relationship between he and Cherrill is well known, the strain never shows on screen. Chaplin explores worlds with great passion despite the film not being a “talkie.” He gives us a valid statement on the perceptions of fragile relationships between the classes.

The love and affection between The Tramp and The Flower Girl is real and beautifully detailed. It unfolds very nicely and Chaplin moves us with his kind and angelic movements and concerns. Wanting to help the girl regain her sight by raising money doing odd jobs (The boxing match is hands down the funniest scene in the movie) is a profound way for Chaplin to involve his audience and convince them that his Tramp is a substantial and very human being.

On the other his relationship with The Millionaire becomes strained every time he becomes sober and shuns The Tramp. One point he doesn’t even remember giving The Tramp his own motor coach. The Millionaire has his sight but cannot “see” what The Tramp really is. A passionate and determined man, down on his luck but willing to help others.

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Now on to Chaplin’s ability to entertain us. His comedy is through the roof here. His gestures and facial expressions are priceless. His eyes alone when ever something unexpected (Like having wine poured down his pants or having his underwear slowly un-knitted) happens is pure hilarity and indelible genius. The reason “City Lights” works is because Chaplin knew how to make us appreciate his hard work whether it be the comedic side or the moving and touching approach to his romance with The Flower Girl.

The film remains so beloved and timeless that even the smallest cracks and flaws are made moot (Look out for a cable wire holding Chaplin up during the boxing match). Chaplin succeeds in delivering great timing and he works wonderfully off of Myers and Cherrill. Furthermore, Chaplin’s story continues way after his beloved is gone and he is put in jail for getting in trouble regarding his fair weather friend, The Millionaire. In the film’s finale, Chaplin supplies us with such a moving, charming and radiant ending. The last precious shot is pure heaven and a mighty cinematic feat.

“City Lights” is one of my favorite Chaplin films and has become an iconic demonstration that romantic comedies can be done without melodrama and corny sentimentality. The film is gorgeously shot and framed. (Gotta love that soft focus) Chaplin is in rare form here with his outstanding performance and his off the wall antics.  Just watching Chaplin is like watching music come alive and appear tangible. He is a symphony here. Everything works especially well and Myers and Cherrill are great performers, too. Completely funny, bittersweet and important, “City Lights” is a can’t miss movie in the brilliant canon of Charlie Chaplin’s filmography.  Enjoy! Highly recommended!

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    • It is. It had been a long time since I had seen it, too. So amazing. His ability to provoke laughter and emotion is unparalleled. Thanks for stopping by, Maurice. I appreciate it!

  1. Excellent review! 🙂 You know I only started watching Chaplin this year when I decided to start my IMDB Top 250 project? Boy was I missing something amazing! I absolutely loved City Lights (and Modern Times & The Kid). City Lights is one of my all-time favorite movie endings now, too. It’s SO lovely! 🙂

    • It is indeed lovely. The Kid is my next Chaplin review, haha! That movie is sooo good. He was incredibly talented and such and endearing figure on the big screen. He was a bit of a perfectionist but he always got what he wanted up on the screen especially when he played The Tramp. Thanks for stopping by and I’m glad you enjoyed the review. I appreciate it! 🙂

      • I reviewed The Kid & City Lights as well. (And Modern Times but didn’t say a lot as it was my first Chaplin experience but I think it’s slightly my favorite of the three). Soooo glad I’ve made a start on his films. I look forward to your The Kid review. 🙂

      • I’ll be sure to check out your Chaplin reviews. I have Modern Times lined up to watch. Looking forward to your write up’s! Thanks again. 😀

      • Cool – thanks 🙂 Will it be a re-watch for you on Modern Times? That one really is SO brilliant! It’s almost a shame that I think I’ve probably started with all the best ones.

      • Modern Times will be a re-watch for me. I haven’t watched it since my NYU days when they screened it. I remember loving it very much but I don’t recall it very well. So, it will be like watching it for the first time. I wrote out a list of his best films and I hope to get through them all by the new year. 🙂

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