Ryan’s Vintage Review: City Lights (1931)

City Lights

Originally written March 21, 2004 (3 years before AFI’s 2nd Top 100 List)!

Truth be told, I’ve always preferred Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush to City Lights. It’s not a matter of which is the better movie. It’s simply a gut reaction I had when I first saw each of them 6 years ago. Having now seen both of these classics on remastered DVDs proves that City Lights is the more complete film with the better story. For it to rank at only #76 on the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest American Films list in 1998 actually seems quite astonishing. A film with such lasting appeal should have finished much higher. Heck, The Gold Rush managed to place 2 spots higher at #74. Everything about City Lights is note-perfect and, considering its fame and reputation, it seems unjust that it didn’t squeeze into the Top 25. The IMDb‘s Top 250 list ranks it even lower at #94 (although films from any country and in any language are eligible for that list). Have people simply forgotten the older films, especially those that are now more than 70 years old? Is Chaplin dated? Does the black & white and silent stigma scare casual viewers away? I hope not. Viewers should know that pictures like this one don’t age.

Is it an affront to cinema that I bought hundreds of DVDs before finally buying Chaplin’s masterpiece, City Lights? As much as I admired the pathos and laughed out loud at the comedy that first time in 1998, I knew I could wait for the special edition DVD that would inevitably come out. The March 2nd release of the remastered, souped-out double disc set of the “Comedy Romance In Pantomime” has made me feel like a schmuck for not having been more eager to buy this movie before. If you’ve never seen it, go rent the DVD and enjoy one of the legendary artistic contributions to the first half of the 20th century. And if you have seen it before, take another look. They’ve done a fine job restoring the picture and transforming the music score into a 5.1 mix. Most of all, watch the movie for its pure entertainment. This one is a must-have in the library of any serious film fan.

Speaking of serious, that reminds me why it sounds so pointless to review a comedy. The only thing that should matter is, did you laugh? On the other hand, Chaplin was such a thorough filmmaker that he worked for many years to perfect his projects and did far more than just go for belly laughs. Dozens of filmmakers can lay claim to redefining cinema (Griffith, Kurosawa, Ford, Hitchcock, Kubrick among them), although none of them performed the quintuple threat of acting, directing, writing, producing, and usually scoring. Chaplin was a true auteur and his fingerprints were almost literally on the film negative itself. To be able to make such beautiful comedies was his blessing and his curse. The average film fan might mention some or all of those 5 men I just named as the greatest of directors, but not many would name the man who played the Little Tramp. They should. As we learned in Sullivan’s Travels, making audiences laugh is as crucial as it is difficult. Chaplin was a one-of-a-kind clown with a powerful ulterior motive.

In this picture, we meet the Tramp when he’s found sleeping in the arms of a statue. Hilarity ensues when he has trouble climbing down, much to the slack-jawed chagrin of wealthy on-lookers. Right off the top, we’re introduced to the theme Chaplin featured in many of his films—class warfare. He’s poor and gets respect only when mistaken for being rich. He makes two friends in this story; one an eccentric millionaire (Harry Myers) who first appears as a suicidal drunkard. The third lead is the heart of the movie, the blind flower girl (Virgina Cherrill). It’s been said that they shot the scene where the Tramp first meets her 342 times (!) because the director “could not find a satisfactory way of showing that the blind flower girl thought that the mute tramp was wealthy” (quoted from the IMDb). Chaplin uses that Oh Come On plot device here to great effect by not allowing her to discover that she’s made friends with a vagrant until the remarkable final scene. You might think the feel of his dirty and tattered face and clothes would give him away sooner, but she never believes he’s anything less than a rich man. A bit of a cheat, but fair enough.

This is one-sided love at first sight and the Tramp wants only to help her see again, even if that means she’ll find out his secret. Blindness is a major theme throughout—the girl can’t see, the Tramp is blindly in love when he first sets eyes on her, and the oft-soused millionaire can only “see” the Tramp when he’s plastered. The way the millionaire treats our hero is both funny and infuriating. Whenever he sobers up, he has his butler (Allan Garcia) throw the Tramp out of the house, casting him out like a worthless beggar. However, he’s forever giving the Tramp money and parties and cars and everything else while he’s drunk. As he often did, Chaplin has a lot to say about society in this film. The sauced millionaire treats the Tramp like his best friend, while the sober millionaire kicks him to the curb. It’s as if the film is saying that the poor can come in the house when it suits the rich, but they better get the hell out when it doesn’t. Something I hadn’t noticed the first time I saw this movie was the way the millionaire seems to be a closeted homosexual. He’s always kissing the Tramp and sitting right beside him. They end up sleeping in the same bed after a wild party, but we see a half-dozen women strewn about in the living room the next morning. Maybe these scenes say more about the director’s opinions of the upper class than we thought…

The pacing in this movie is just right. We never spend too much time with either the rich man or the flower girl, yet both of them are kept fresh in your mind. It’s not all plot points, though. There are some uproarious laughs too. The wonderful boxing match is among the funniest I’ve ever seen, a true comedy of errors. The precise ballet is probably no more complex than the choreography you’d find in a hundred other Chaplin routines, but this is truly poetry in motion. It’s actually a fairly exciting match to boot, even if you know there’s no way the Tramp is going to win against a prizefighter. We also get a nice set-up/pay-off in the scene in which the Tramp first sees where the flower girl lives. He’s standing on her staircase and a cat is perched on a ledge right above. The feline knocks over a plant, plunking the Tramp in the head. We see the cat in a long shot first; it doesn’t just come out of nowhere. A lesser director would have cut to a close-up, then telegraphed the joke. Instead, it’s just a natural part of the action.

What must be the end result in this story? Hey, this is almost fantasy filmmaking because we get a healthy dose of wish fulfillment. A miracle cure for blindness has been discovered and our destitute hero is desperate to find the money to pay for the operation. After one job doesn’t work out and the boxing match goes bad, the Tramp finally takes a huge risk after saving his rich on-off friend from thieves. The Tramp is accused of stealing money that the millionaire gave him. To whom do you think that money is going? Woody Allen said of the silent and mostly title card-free City Lights, “It says so much more about love than so many films that prattle on about love.” How true. Everything he does is for her, including going to jail. The Tramp is smitten with this girl and will do anything, even shoveling shit and going to the hoosegow, to help her out. In the end, she’s the one giving him money. He knows how he must look to her, what she must think of such a bum. I’m not sure how many times the perfectionist Chaplin shot this final scene, but the two actors are as good here as any two actors have ever been in such a scene. At the end, when they’re talking about her sight being restored, I’m sure audiences worldwide are the ones who can’t see because their eyes are brimming with salty tears.

Oh, how sappy of me! If readers were to scoff at me for the way I bash modern rom-coms, I’d point them to this film. This is how to do it, how to romanticize a picture, how to make it basically a chick flick and reduce the audience to tears of joy. With this film, The Kid, and a few others, Charlie Chaplin proved to be a world-class sentimentalist. Ironic that the unsentimental Orson Welles reportedly liked this film above all others since Welles himself made the film now considered the greatest of all time, Citizen Kane. Was it a tribute to Chaplin that Welles buried his acting credit on Citizen Kane as Charlie did in this and in so many of his movies? Perhaps it was. These two men deserve that overused label of “genius”, even if they come from radically different ends of the filmmaking spectrum.

1931 was a key year at the movies. James Cagney was becoming a superstar in The Public Enemy, horror icons like Dracula and Frankenstein were born in the films of Tod Browning and James Whale, and a western (Cimarron) would be the last of that genre to win a Best Picture Oscar until Dances With Wolves won nearly 60 years later. Cinema was rapidly evolving and the Little Tramp’s silence was just about at an end. Sound had been a part of movies for 4 years and even an artist with the immense power of Charlie Chaplin couldn’t resist it much longer. He would incorporate some sound (including sporadic dialogue) in his next picture, Modern Times, but City Lights was the last time we’d see the Tramp as a purely silent character. And what of the Little Tramp? What place does he hold in the pantheon of film icons? Well, there I go with that list stuff again. A movie such as City Lights proves that #76 on the AFI list (not to mention receiving no Oscar nominations in 1931) means zilch. Some films go beyond rankings and Top 10s. And The Tramp might simply be the greatest character in the storied history of film.

copyright Ryan Ellis 2013

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