City Lights is a 1931 American romantic comedy film written by, directed by, and starring Charlie Chaplin. Widely considered Chaplin’s best film, this simple and sweet story has the beloved tramp going to outrageous lengths to raise money for a blind girl’s “miracle cure.” But he’s just a tramp — will she still love him when she can see him for what he truly is? There’s the rub, and Chaplin reminds us of it despite the endless, goofy scenarios the tramp encounters en route to the touching finale.
Although sound films were on the rise when Chaplin started developing the script in 1928, he decided to continue working with silent productions. Filming started in December 1928, and ended in September 1930. City Lights marked the first time Chaplin composed the film score to one of his productions and it was written in six weeks with Arthur Johnston. The main theme used as a leitmotif for the blind flower girl is the song “La Violetera” (“Who’ll Buy my Violets”) from Spanish composer José Padilla. Chaplin lost a lawsuit to Padilla for not crediting him.
City Lights was immediately successful upon release on 30 January 1931, with positive reviews and box office receipts of $5 million. Today, critics consider it not only one of the highest accomplishments of Chaplin’s career, but one of the greatest films ever made. In 1992, the Library of Congress selected City Lights for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. In 2007, the American Film Institute’s 100 Years… 100 Movies ranked City Lights as the 11th greatest American film of all time. In 1949, the critic James Agee referred to the final scene in the film as the “greatest single piece of acting ever committed to celluloid”.
The story follows the misadventures of Chaplin’s Tramp as he falls in love with a blind girl and develops a turbulent friendship with an alcoholic millionaire (Harry Myers).The main character is the tramp (Chaplin) who is ignored and abused at every turn but he maintains his hope that romance and acceptance are just around the corner. The tramp falls hopelessly and unconditionally in love with a blind flower seller (Virginia Cherrill). Through a series of misunderstandings, she comes to believe that he is a millionaire. Smitten, the tramp keeps up the illusion. He is a romantic figure for the first time in his life.
The third main character is an actual millionaire (Harry Myers), who is the tramp’s best friend when he is drunk but is heartless when sober. Through the millionaire’s drunken generosity, the tramp is able to continue his charade and help his love at the same time. This arrangement cannot last and the tramp is forced to take some desperate steps in order to restore the flower seller’s eyesight. Human beings, no matter what culture we belong to, crave acceptance and love. Chaplin manages to incorporate these desires into City Lights without being cloying or manipulative.
This movie highlight, one of the funniest sporting events ever filmed the immortal boxing scene in which Charlie’s footwork bedazzles both the referee and his opponent. It also includes a great deal of sentiment, which some of the 1931 critics found excessive. I don’t think so. Chaplin goes only so far with sentiment, and then makes his getaway with a gag.
Sometimes the sentiment and the gag grow so organically out of the situation that you don’t know whether to laugh or not. That’s the case in the opening sequence with the blind flower-girl. Charlie buys a flower, leaves, tiptoes around the corner, positions himself beside a water tap and gazes at her adoringly. She makes her way to the tap, fills her water can, sloshes it around and throws the water into Charlie’s face. His reaction to this misadventure is so complex that comedy hardly seems the word for it.
In 1952, Sight and Sound magazine revealed the results of its first poll for “The Best Films of All Time”; City Lights was voted #2, after Vittorio DeSica’s Bicycle Thieves. City Lights was highly ranked in the critic lists and rendered as one of the inspiring film of all times. This is a simple piece of art, an honest expression from Chaplin and the amount of work that Chaplin poured into it is enormous. It succeeds because of that straightforwardness. City Lights is a beautiful film and an eloquent ambassador for silent cinema. A must see.
- Produced, Written, Music & Directed by Charlie Chaplin
- Casting: Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Florence Lee, Harry Myers
- Cinematography: Rollie Totheroh
- Distributed by United Artists
- Release dates: January 30, 1931
- Running time: 87 minutes
- Country : United States
- Language: English