Written, directed, produced, edited, and starring Charles Chaplin, City Lights is the story of a street tramp who falls for a blind flower seller while dealing with a drunken millionaire. The film is considered to be one of Chaplin’s finest films in the era of silent comedies as the film also marks as a great progression of his work as a filmmaker. Also starring Virginia Cherrill, Florence Lee, and Harry Myers. City Lights is a heartwarming yet whimsical film from Charles Chaplin.
After causing chaos at monument ceremony, the tramp (Charles Chaplin) wanders around the city where he meets and falls for a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill). Smitten by her, he buys a flower as she later mistakes him for a millionaire when she hears a man walking out of a car. The tramp is unable to correct her as he later wanders around the city when he meets a drunken millionaire (Harry Myers) trying to kill himself as he saves him. The millionaire befriends him as he takes the tramp all over the city and to his home where the tramp uses the millionaire’s drunken state for his own gain. Borrowing the man’s Rolls Royce, he pretends to be a millionaire to win over the flower girl who lives with her grandmother (Florence Lee) as he takes her home.
When he makes another visit to see the flower girl, he learns that she is sick while later discovering she owes rent money to her landlord. With the millionaire often being sober by day where he doesn’t recognize the tramp only to be drunk at night to treat the tramp like a friend. Deciding to take a job to raise money, the tramp visit’s the flower girl as he wants to help her after reading about a cure for blindness. When he decides to take a big money gig by boxing, it becomes a disaster only to meet the drunken millionaire who helps him until trouble occurs involving burglars. Wanting to do what is right, he makes a big sacrifice for the woman that he’s fallen for.
Made at the time when the era of silent films was becoming extinct in favor of the talkies in the early 1930s, Charles Chaplin was still trying to keep the style of filmmaking alive in his own grand style. For this romantic comedy, Chaplin takes the simple story of a tramp trying to win the heart of a blind flower girl by pretending to be a millionaire and using a drunk millionaire for financial reasons to help her. Along the way, a lot of hi-jinks ensure where Chaplin’s famed tramp character tries to do everything he can to help this blind woman while taking the chance to befriend a drunken millionaire.
The story is an endearing one as the tramp starts out being unaware that he was sleeping on some new statues for a city monument ceremony. When he wakes up, he causes all sorts of problems as he tries to rectify everything. The tramp is a character that is filled with innocence while proving to be someone who has a heart of gold when he helps out people like the millionaire and the flower girl. When he tries to help out in taking a job or trying to make bigger money by boxing, it’s all done with a sense of naiveté that makes the character more enjoyable.
Chaplin’s direction is truly charming throughout the film from the opening sequence of the film to many of the film’s comedic moments. The way Chaplin frames many of the slapstick comedy scenes such as the boxing sequence or the scene where the tramp tries to save the millionaire at the river bank. The way the physical comedy is choreographed and framed shows how fluid Chaplin’s work as a director is. He makes the audience be engaged by the comedy not just as a performance but as art. Chaplin even goes for simplicity in the scenes where he keeps the camera still for the more romantic moments involving the tramp and flower girl.
Chaplin also keeps things straightforward as he creates some wonderful, rhythmic cuts to keep the film going as he uses inter-title cards to display bits of dialogue or to set up a scene. Still, he adds a bit of style in the use of fade-outs to help out with the transitions while creating some wonderful close-ups to capture the emotional moments of the film for the romantic moments. The film’s ending is where Chaplin’s direction really goes for the emotional kick with just some simple close-ups and heart wrenching dialogue as he ends the film in such a romantic way. It is truly a great ending to one of Chaplin’s best films.
Cinematographers Gordon Pollock and Rollie Totheroh, along with un-credited work by Mark Marklatt, does some excellent work with the film’s black-and-white photography from the bright look of the daytime scenes to the lush, soft look of the close-ups to heighten the romantic feel. Set decorator Charles D. Hall does some great work in the look for the millionaire’s home as well as the restaurant where the tramp and millionaire ate at. Sound supervisor Theodore Reed does some good work with the bits of sound that occurs such as the whistle that the tramp swallows to gun shots during a key scene in the film.
The film’s music by Chaplin himself, with orchestration by Arthur Johnston and Alfred Newman that also includes new recording by Carl Davis for later home video releases, is among the film’s highlights. Played throughout the film, the score is filled with sweeping yet playful score for many of the film’s comedic moments. There is also a somber score piece which is written by Jose Padilla for theme of the flower girl as it is a highlight to a great film soundtrack for the film.
The cast is truly superb as it includes appearances from Jean Harlow as an extra in the restaurant scene, Henry Bergman as the mayor in the opening scene of the film, Robert Parrish as a snotty newsboy, Al Ernest Garcia as the millionaire’s snooty butler, and Hank Mann as the boxer the tramp fights. Florence Lee is very good as the flower girl’s kind grandmother while Harry Mann is brilliant as the drunken millionaire who brings a great physicality to his scenes with Chaplin. Virginia Cherrill is radiant as the flower blind girl whose angelic face and sensitive expressions brings all of the right note that the tramp needed for motivation as it’s a truly mesmerizing performance from Cherrill. In his role as the tramp, Charles Chaplin is marvelous for the famed character that he’s played in the way he adds a lot of humor with just his physicality and warm facial expressions. It is among one of Chaplin’s iconic performance as it is very funny and heartwarming.
City Lights is a phenomenal yet charismatic film from Charles Chaplin as it is among one of his best films of his career. It is no doubt that the film is among one of the best films ever made while anyone who is new to Chaplin might find this film as a worthy place to start. In the end, City Lights is a beautiful yet touching romantic-comedy from the great Charles Chaplin.
Charles Chaplin Films (United Artists Era): (A Woman in Paris) - (The Gold Rush) - (The Circus) - Modern Times - The Great Dictator - (Monsieur Verdoux) - (Limelight)
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