HIS FIRST PICTURE IN THREE YEARS! THE KING IS HIMSELF AGAIN! THE WHOLE TOWN WILL GO CHAPLIN-MAD!
Charlie Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance labeled City Lights an ”act of defiance”. After all, this was a silent picture even though talkies were all the rage. There had been sound in movies since 1927, but Chaplin was far from thrilled. He envisioned City Lights as a silent film and since he was a powerful Hollywood player (his own producer and distributor via United Artists) he could do what he wanted, giving talkies the finger. City Lights is Chaplin’s last masterpiece, a box-office hit and a reminder in 1931 that silents still could impress.
Mistaking the Tramp for a millionaire
The Tramp (Chaplin) encounters a beautiful flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) whom he’s smitten with. She’s blind and mistakes him for a millionaire. Later that night, the Tramp does run into an actual millionaire (Harry Myers), a man who’s so unhappy that he’s trying to drown himself in the city river. He’s also very drunk. The Tramp saves his life and they become friends, having champagne at the millionaire’s home. He gives the Tramp money, which he spends on the flower girl, letting her continue to believe that he’s rich.
When he once again meets his new-found friend, the millionaire is sober and has no recollection of their adventures together, throwing him out of his home. But he’ll be drunk again, and eager to find his fun-loving buddy…
Taking place in all kinds of cities
As evidenced by the title, this is a story that takes place in a city, but which one? Well, it’s all kinds of cities, and deliberately so. The original idea was Paris, and there are moments when it does look like the French capital, as in the millionaire’s first suicide attempt. But we can spot palm trees in other scenes, making us think it’s Los Angeles, and sometimes London comes to mind.
The story is somewhat episodic, beginning with the public unveiling of a statue that shows the Tramp sleeping in the lap of a sculpture and then trying to climb off of it. Most sequences find the Tramp in some kind of predicament, often at odds with a stranger, leading to hilarious slapstick, but it still holds together beautifully as it balances between comedy and sentiment, in the latter case affection between the Tramp and the flower girl. As in much of Chaplin’s work, the differences between money and poverty is on display, with love triumphing; the relationship between the Tramp and the millionaire is more complicated because of alcohol. Their time together inspires some of the film’s best scenes, especially a very funny night out at a party that looks like a perfectly choreographed dance sequence. The same is true for the boxing match where the Tramp knows he’s an underdog and cleverly evades getting punched by his opponent for as long as he can.
Still, the most famous scene in the film is the end that is all about emotion, featuring the Tramp and the flower girl reuniting after many months, her eyesight restored. It is a superbly touching moment, one of the best directed scenes of Chaplin’s career, and the same could be said about his acting, unforgettably capturing the Tramp’s shame and hesitation in that moment. Considering how troubled the relationship was between Chaplin and Cherrill during the shooting of the film (causing the actress to be fired and reluctantly rehired at one point), it’s amazing how well they made it work.
As in his later Modern Times (1936), City Lights isn’t entirely silent. There’s sound effects and for the first time Chaplin wrote a music score, using a song by the Spanish composer José Padilla as leitmotif for the flower girl. He never credited Padilla and was sued. Maybe he thought losing the lawsuit was worth it; the music is terrific, especially the tense tune he wrote for the boxing match.
City Lights 1931-U.S. Silent. 86 min. B/W. Produced, written, directed and music by Charlie Chaplin. Cast: Charlie Chaplin (A Tramp), Virginia Cherrill (A Blind Girl), Harry Myers (A Millionaire), Hank Mann, Florence Lee.
Trivia: Remade in Turkey in 1984.
Last word: “I really didn’t write [the music] down. I la-laed and [composer/conductor] Arthur Johnson wrote it down, and I wish you would give him credit because he did a very good job. It is all simple music, you know, in keeping with my character.” (Chaplin, “Chaplin: His Life and Art”)