City Lights (1931)

Synopsis: With the aid of a wealthy erratic tippler, a dewy-eyed tramp who has fallen in love with a sightless flower girl accumulates money to be able to help her medically.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Brent

Why I chose it: Why: I’d never seen a Charlie Chaplin film and this was the one that interested me the most to start with. I only chose one for this movie calendar because I was nervous about including so many silent films — what if I didn’t like one? There’s always next year, of course…

Leah’s Review:

I laughed. I cried. And then I laughed some more.

Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights” was one of the most enjoyable movie experiences this year thus far. Previously the only other silent movie I had even seen was parts of “Modern Times”. As that was also a Chaplin classic, I knew what I was getting myself into: general hilarity.

“City Lights” is a story about a tramp meets a blind flower girl, falls in love with her, and works to help her financially with the assistance of an eccentric millionaire who he prevents from committing suicide. The simplicity of the plot allows for plenty of zany moments and shenanigans to ensue. This is definitely a movie you can turn your brain off for- and that is in no way a bad thing.

As this was my first viewing of a silent film in its entirety, I was caught off guard by how little “intertitles” or subtitles there were. We don’t get to read every line that is “spoken” on camera- which allows us to use our reasoning and imagination to fill in the blanks when needed. However, the acting is so well-done, that this doesn’t take much doing. It’s amazing how little we need the dialogue because of how the film so clearly shows us everything we need to know. Being an actor must have been very different in the silent film era and likely required a very different set of skills than those of today’s films.

Having previously seen some of Chaplin’s work, I knew this film was going to be entertaining as well as comical. But I don’t know if I expected it to be as funny as it was. The comedy in “City Lights” is so simple- but it gets you every time. Since it’s a silent film, most of the laughs come from physical comedy, which Chaplain is a creative master of. Something I appreciated about this film is that it knows not only how to time its comedic moments but also knows how to not let jokes become redundant.

As funny as the film is, there is a truly genuine emotional side to it as well. The love story between Chaplin’s tramp and Virginia Cherrill’s blind flower girl is sincere and heartfelt even though all of the humor. The movie ends (SPOILERS) with the tramp and the (no-longer blind) flower girl re-uniting after being separated for some time. Having never actually seen the tramp with whom she fell in love with, the flower girl does not know who he is right away. But as he stares at her, we see the recognition slowly appear on her face as she asks “You?”. Pure joy appears on Chaplin’s face as he nods his head. It is moving and beautiful.

If you watch this film- you might find yourself, as I did, crying from happiness as well as laughter. This is a must-see classic movie and I would recommend it to anyone.

Brent’s Review:

“City Lights” is a Charlie Chaplin film, but more than that it is a “comedy romance in pantomime…” The key here is pantomime, which is another way of saying this is a silent film. Four years after Al Jolson changed the landscape of cinema in “The Jazz Singer” – the first “talkie” – Chaplin continued to make films featuring heavy use of pantomime and title cards. That the film is engaging and heartwarming is revelatory of the nature of cinema: films are moving pictures.

Chaplin plays a tramp, or a beggar or vagrant. He wanders the city getting into mischief, but he comes upon two major supporting characters: a blind woman who sells flowers (the love interest) and a suicidal, drunk aristocrat. He befriends the aristocrat, who only remembers him when he’s drunk, but he longs for the blind woman. The Tramp discovers that the blind woman and her mother will be evicted if they do not make their rent, so he sets out to get the money for her. Through happenstance, he not only makes the rent but also gives her enough money to get cured of her blindness.

The details of the plot are inconsequential – often times they serve to move Chaplin from set-piece to set-piece, not unlike most comedies we find in cinemas today. The formula is tried and true: write your best jokes and figure out a setup to tell them. However, Chaplin’s humor is always in service of the plot itself. He never strays from the overarching narrative, even if the detours are long and wide.

Chaplin is a master of physical comedy – in the sense that he’s using his body to tell jokes, not that he’s merely taking pratfalls and hurting himself (although he does this as well). One scene in particular illustrates his brief time as a street sweeper. We see him react with disgust as a horse rides by and he scoops its droppings. To his dismay, an entire horse-led parade turns down his street. Frustrated, he turns around to find something worse: an elephant stomps by. The timing and his facial expressions are perfection – I was in stitches the entire scene.

But this isn’t just a comedy; “City Lights” is very much a romance. I mentioned in my review for “In The Mood For Love” that I invest myself into screen romances only so much as I care for the individual characters. Chaplin understands that the best way to do this is through comedy – and genuine comedy that doesn’t degrade the character you’re supposed to be invested in. Consider, for instance, that the first scene of the film runs nearly five minutes in length and does nothing except vaguely introduce you to the idea of Chaplin’s Tramp character and also to make you laugh. If the Tramp can make you laugh, he will surely make you cry.

“City Lights” is a lesson on the importance of timing and blocking in both comedy and romance. Its status as a film classic is unquestionably deserved.

Next up: We’ll be watching one of Leah’s all-time favorite movies “Chariots of Fire” which won four Oscars at the 1981 Academy Awards including Best Picture and (unsurprisingly) Best Original Music Score. To say that Leah is excited to finally introduce this film to Brent would be an understatement.

Peace out, kids.


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