Review: City Lights (1931)

>> Saturday, March 29, 2008

USA/Silent/B&W-87m./Dir: Charles Chaplin/Wr: Charles Chaplin/Cast: Charles Chaplin (A Tramp), Virginia Cherrill (A Blind Girl), Harry Myers (An Eccentric Millionaire), Florence Lee (The Blind Girl’s Grandmother), Al Ernest Garcia (Millionaire’s Butler), Hank Mann (A Prizefighter)

Seventeen years after Charlie Chaplin’s entrance into motion pictures (based upon the strength of his legendary drunk act), he produced his masterpiece, City Lights. The movie premiered in 1931, four years after the advent of talking pictures. Still, Chaplin decided to film City Lights as a silent, subtitling it “A Comedy Romance in Pantomime.” It is primarily the romance aspect of the film (including the deservedly famous “Yes, I can see now” finale) on which critics tend to focus. However, first and foremost, City Lights is a comedy, and the lion’s share of the laughs are generated by the dual drunk act of Charlie Chaplin and Harry Myers.

The story is simple--Chaplin’s tramp encounters a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill), who mistakes him for a rich man through a circumstance that is ingenious in its simplicity (I’ll let you discover that for yourself). The tramp is smitten with the girl and wants to help her overcome her poverty and blindness, but he doesn’t have the means to help her. Fate steps in when the tramp prevents a drunken millionaire (Harry Myers) from committing suicide. The pair form a fast friendship during a liquor-soaked night on the town. Unfortunately, the tramp has difficulty putting the touch on the millionaire, because the alky blacks out whenever he’s sober. He only recognizes the tramp when he’s hammered.

City Lights is simply Chaplin’s best film and one of the two greatest silent comedies ever made (the other being Keaton’s The General). Like most of Chaplin’s movies, much of the plot and slapstick were improvised on the set; and production would occasionally shut down as the director worked out story details. Although the production took nearly three years to complete, the final product appears effortless. Chaplin’s writing, directing, acting, and original score are all superb; and the contributions of non-actress Virginia Cherrill and comic Harry Myers approach perfection. In terms of comic set pieces and true emotion, City Lights is unmatched; and it deserves all of the superlatives that have been heaped upon it. Whether you are a fan of silent film or can’t stand old black and white movies, you’ll find it hard not to love City Lights.

Drinks Consumed--Unnamed liquor and champagne

Intoxicating Effects--Staggering, stumbling, hiccups, bickering, memory blackouts, and soused sentimentality

Potent Quotables--THE TRAMP: Careful how you’re driving.

Video Availability--While the Warner DVD release of City Lights boasts better contrast and sharpness than the earlier City Lights (Image Entertainment) release, the Warner DVD trims the top and bottom off the frame in order to fit standard television dimensions. The out-of-print Image release is worth seeking out, because it preserves the film’s original aspect ratio.

Similarly Sauced Cinema--Chaplin performed variations of his drunk act in numerous shorts and features, but One A.M. (1916) contains his greatest inebriated tour de force.

Original Image Entertainment Charlie Chaplin Boxed Set (City Lights / The Great Dictator / Modern Times / The Gold Rush)


Anonymous April 9, 2008 at 10:16 PM  

I still remember the first time you got me to watch City Lights.

Thank you, again, for even then recommending classic films.

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I like to drink. I like to watch movies. I like to watch movies about drinking. I like to write about the movies I’ve watched, but only if I’ve had a drink first.

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