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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 6.67%
Average: 3.33%
Pretty Bad: 0%
Total Crap: 6.67%

1 review, 24 user ratings

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City Lights
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by Collin Souter

"Silence is golden"
5 stars

I always love to hear an elderly man or woman describe to me how they met their significant other. The stories date back several decades and the listening experience often involves the listener’s imagination with discovery and invention. The story being told comes from a different time with different ideals and attitudes. One has to put the story and its teller in perspective and realize that a chance encounter or a first date in the ‘20s or ‘30s did not carry with it the same kind of baggage as a penciled-in date of the ‘90s and ‘00s. We can only imagine it. A war went on, times were tough and many things in life had to be accepted at face value.

In 1931, no movie star had a more recognizable face than Charlie Chaplin. His film, “City Lights,” when watched today, has the feel of an old, personal story being passed down another generation. It came out at a time when sound opened wider the doors of cinematic perception among filmgoers. “The Jazz Singer” in 1927 changed the way people looked at and listened to movies. Actors could now talk to one another instead of just mouthing their dialogue. This resulted in a lot of scenes involving people sitting at a table talking into a hidden microphone. Charlie Chaplin would have none of that. He pressed on with his love story in pantomime involving a blind woman (Virginia Cherrill) mistaking the Little Tramp for a millionaire. Chaplin’s stubbornness resulted in a veritable silent ballet of emotion and heartache, hilarity and triumph, as though it were the greatest story ever told.

Many in Chaplin’s circle tried to persuade him to convert to sound, but Chaplin knew that if the Tramp spoke, the magic would be gone. He labored on the project for over a year, unheard of in those days. He had a problem conveying the main turning point in the story, whereby the Blind Flower Girl mistakes the Tramp for a millionaire. The slam of a car door inspired Chaplin to use a rich man’s car stuck in traffic as a device to give the blind girl the wrong idea. After the Tramp buys a flower from her, she hears a car door slam and a car drive off. She shouts out, “Wait for your change, sir!” The Tramp, sensitive to her physical plight, does not verbally correct her, but simply walks away and admires her beauty from afar.

The movie actually tells two stories. After the Tramp buys the flower and becomes smitten by the Blind Flower Girl, he meets a real Millionaire (Harry Myers). The Tramp saves the drunken Millionaire from committing suicide and the two become friends. They go to parties, spend loads of money and smoke fancy cigars. But “the sober dawn awakens a different man” as the Millionaire forgets he even met the Tramp, and promptly kicks him out of his house. But for the time being they are together, the Tramp uses the opulence to his advantage and further convinces the Blind Flower Girl of his stature in life.

The scenes between the Tramp and the Millionaire invoke the spirit of Chaplin’s shorter films, where Chaplin pokes fun at the upper class. It becomes a yo-yo act, where the Tramp only gets recognized by the Millionaire when he’s drunk. The two always seem to bump into one another when hope seems all but lost for the Tramp.

The scenes between the Tramp and the Blind Flower Girl have the feeling of an old story being told to a new generation. She lives in an apartment with her Grandmother. They have barely enough to pay the rent. But love seems to be in bloom for the Tramp and the Blind Flower Girl, which gives her hope. The Tramp, however, must prove his worth when he finds out that the Blind Girl’s landlord has just threatened them with an eviction notice. In order to try and save the Flower Girl and her Grandmother from being thrown out of their home, the Tramp gets a job cleaning horse manure off the street.

This kind of love story—where a man must correct his wrong-doings, must work extra hard for happiness and who longs to gaze lovingly into his sweetheart’s eyes—always has the feeling of a distant daydream to me, as though I just opened up an old photo album that doesn’t contain a single picture in color. The story of “City Lights” would not work today, except probably as a stupifyingly unfunny mistaken identity comedy. One cannot approach this movie with their cynicism intact and expect to come out satisfied. One has to approach the movie with the feeling of imagining your Grandmother or Grandfather telling you the story of how they met. People didn’t meet through want-ads or drab pick-up lines. They met face-to-face, without any sort of media influence or warning signs from Cosmopolitan magazine.

Of course, this is a comedy and some of Chaplin’s funniest moments occur in “City Lights,” one of which being the boxing match, in which the Tramp tries to win some prize money to help pay the Flower Girl’s rent. His thug-like opponent keeps throwing punches while the Tramp repeatedly hides behind the Ref. At one point, the Tramp climbs onto the ring and lunges in mid-air toward his opponent (Okay, so you can see the string holding Chaplin. I told you these were different times).

A kind of movie in-joke occurs in the movie’s hilarious opening with the public unveiling of a ridiculously grandiose statue. Hundreds of hoity-toity upper-class simpletons turn out to watch. They uncover the tarp and find, much to their dismay, the Little Tramp sleeping on the lap of the statue, thus eradicating the importance of the event. In this opening scene, Chaplin playfully thumbs his nose at those who urged him to go the way of sound. The rich people at this gathering make speeches, but rather than hearing their actual words, Chaplin employed the sound of kazoos to give their voice, which is actually not too different from the way talkies actually sounded back than.

And then there’s the legendary final scene. For the benefit of those who may be reading this and have not seen the film, I will not elaborate too much. I will say that it involves the final encounter we will ever see between the Tramp and the Blind Flower Girl. It is a powerful and endearing moment of suspense, whimsy and closure. It relies solely on facial expression and the intense familiarity one feels when caressing a lover’s hands. For those budding screenwriters and directors who wonder why their instructors constantly advise over and over again, “Show. Don’t tell,” the last five minutes of “City Lights” explains why. Less is more, and people always want more.

Movies that abide by this ethic whenever possible need to be savored. It is truly a rare thing of beauty to watch a person’s life flash before their eyes without being verbally told it’s happening. A person’s face tells a story. The lines in the skin that accompany the aging process can sometimes convey a lifetime of experience, good and bad. The eyes convey wisdom, humanity and, of course, soul. Out of necessity, the silent era—culminating in the final moments of “City Lights” and ending with Chaplin’s “Modern Times”—gave film its first poetic verse by celebrating these virtues.

Although verses continue to be contributed, some filmmakers today could do themselves a great service by starting over and reading from the beginning. And, of course, a creative individual should never go through life without asking their elders how they met. One never knows. There just might be a great movie in there. So, add some verses and savor those who make them shine Heavenward, like majestic City Lights.

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originally posted: 07/18/02 04:26:15
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User Comments

3/22/15 stanley welles outstanding, funny and touching 5 stars
2/28/14 Miguel Gomez Chaplin's best. Probably the greatest romantic comedy out there. 5 stars
9/25/13 David Hollingsworth A classic tribute to why film is the most poweful medium. 5 stars
8/21/12 edutra i just can't stand silent movies. 1 stars
1/24/12 Irena As a site owner I believe the subject matter here is reallymagnificent. I thank you for yo 3 stars
1/08/10 Josie Cotton is a goddess This is why we love movies! 5 stars
1/28/08 proper amateur film critic Delightful, hilarious and warm felt Chaplin classic 5 stars
4/17/07 fools♫gold Ay, I can't get a review of this work right. 5 stars
2/17/05 Daveman Indispensible 5 stars
12/22/04 Michael OConnor Entertaining 4 stars
8/26/04 Karina An absolutely wonderful film with a heart-jerking ending. Excellent. 5 stars
6/18/04 T. Maj Timeless, heartbreakingly acted 5 stars
3/14/04 hemlata wonderful movie!!! 5 stars
1/23/04 Ken Brueck A masterpiece of its time; a genuinely charming film 4 stars
11/18/03 Kate Streik beautiful, hilarious, full of wisdom and grace 5 stars
8/02/03 DM Lamar Ferguson, you had better be joking! 5 stars
9/27/02 AzureLily With perfect music attached to the brilliant comedy the whole movie seems more entertaining 5 stars
8/01/02 lamar ferguson too loud 1 stars
7/30/02 Michael S. Browne I'm jaded as a kid of the '90s, but I still think it was masterfully performed. Sully sucks 5 stars
7/18/02 Charles Tatum Chaplin was brilliant 5 stars
1/21/02 Spencer Lent Chaplin's best work!!!! Awesome awesome. Best silent movie. 5 stars
1/13/01 Captain Cosmic Definitely Chaplin's most beautiful work. Everyone should see it. 5 stars
9/17/00 Djt888 Chaplin's Best Work..... 5 stars
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  DVD: 02-Mar-2004


  02-Feb-1933 (G)

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