Review: City Lights (1931)

 86b16-charliechaplincitylights2A comedy romance in pantomime. That’s just exactly what City Lights is, because, despite the fact that talkies had been around for approximately 4 years, Chaplin was hesitant to transition his Tramp over to sound. In many ways, I can understand why since the universality of his character would be gone and Chaplin’s own voice would give a very different feel to the little man. With his great popularity and artistic control, Chaplin made this film and Modern Times without dialogue. All he used were synchronized sounds and musical scores. As audiences can attest to, it worked out just fine for him.

This film opens with the Tramp in all his glory sleeping on a statue during its public unveiling. He is rudely awakened and shooed off on his way. He drifts down the boulevards finally meeting a lowly flower girl, showing her kindness before moving on. Although I am partial to Paulette Goddard, Virginia Cherrill plays the blind girl believably and she is a wonderful love interest for Chaplin’s character.

His next acquaintance is a drunken millionaire (Harry Myers) bent on committing suicide. His attempt is unsuccessful partially in thanks to the Tramp. He even gives the man a few positive words as is his custom (Tomorrow the birds will sing, be brave, face life!).

And there you have it. Chaplin introduced his audience to the two people who would be closest to the little man. The two new chums head to a high society hang out where they nearly get in a fight over everything from a bottle of seltzer to a chair, and even the floor show.

The Tramp goes back to the girl, and as another act of kindness he purchases her whole basket of flowers for $10 and continues to masquerade as a high society swinger. As the next title card reads, the sober dawn awakens a different man. Thus, The Tramp is initially rejected by his friend from before, but the drunken millionaire gets reincarnated once again and they begin a wild rager. The next morning the cycle begins again with the Tramp being thrown out.

The Little Man has taken it upon himself to be somewhat of a guardian angel for the blind girl who has become his love. Money is needed if she wants to have a home, and despite getting fired from his job, he resolves to get the funds the next best way. In a boxing match. This is where my favorite sequence, which plays out in the ring, comes to fruition.

The Tramp is seemingly outgunned, but that does not stop him from duking it out. He uses the referee, hugs, and anything else at his disposal to try and not get clobbered. The scene had to be choreographed extensively because at moments it looks just like a dance perfectly synchronized between the three characters. The so-called dance becomes even more uproarious when he begins to tackle his opponent and then unknowingly takes out the ref next. The fight seems even with each man falling down repetitiously as the ref tries to say the count. Unfortunately, the little man cannot hold out and he loses the pot.

One final time he runs into his millionaire friend just back from Europe, and he gets the much-needed money for his girl. Matters are complicated by burglars and a misunderstanding with the police. All works out in the end and the flower girl has her home and enough over to get a surgery to allow her to regain her sight.

Chaplin’s character pays the cost though, winding up in jail because of the “stolen” funds. When he gets on the outside he is more destitute than ever, but the girl’s business is now flourishing.

He runs into her and eyes her happily. Little does she know who this man is. This is not the debonair gentlemen she was expecting. She laughingly proclaims, “I’ve made a conquest.”

Only when she touches his hand by chance, reverting back to her old self, does she comprehend who this really is. This is her savior, the one person who radically changed her entire life. He is dressed in tatters and barely has a penny to his name. But he did have kindness and compassion for her.

A lot has been said about the final moments of the film where she has her “aha” moment, and he responds accordingly. What strikes me is how Chaplin so effectively reveals the nervous charm of his character. His fingers are constantly near his mouth, flower in hand. He states the obvious (You can see now). Then, the film closes with his face lit up with another nervous smile, fingers still in mouth.

It is hard to say where the story goes from this point. That’s not the important part here, though. The important part is that in both of The Tramp’s relationships his two friends cannot see who he truly is. The girl is physically blind and the millionaire is blinded by his stupor. They easily accept him in certain circumstances and yet they truly do not know him.

He, on the other hand, seems to accept them no matter the person they are at that moment. He is faithful and compassionate to them in all circumstances. It seems that perhaps the Tramp truly knows them because he is not blinded like they are. Again, I marvel about how so much can be pondered thanks to the actions of an unassuming vagabond. He is a remarkable little man with a very big heart.

5/5 Stars

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