Friday, January 27, 2012


Only Charlie Chaplin could be bold enough to film a silent movie during the heyday of sound in the early 1930s. By 1931, audiences wanted to hear Al Jolson sing in a movie or hear Boris Karloff groan as Frankenstein's monster. Although "talking" pictures were on the rise since 1928, City Lights was immediately popular. Today, it is thought of as one of the highest accomplishments of Chaplin's prolific career. Although classified as a comedy, City Lights has an ending widely regarded as one of the most moving in cinema history.

As in other Chaplin movies, each scene has an element of slapstick in it, using the comic scenes in a symbolic way. The opening scene uses funny sounds to depict the important mayor and his wife who are smiling and talking emphatically before the crowd. The revelation of the monument before the acting crowd, is actually the revelation of the tramp, the well-known Charlie Chaplin, before the movie-going crowd.

The Tramp, in every scene, barely escapes disaster of which he is completely unaware. Via the comic scenes, the Tramp is shown to be short, dirty and sloppy. His life is contrasted with good food, clean clothing, a large house, and comfortable and clean chairs, couches and beds. He is shown to be fearful of looking at or even dreaming of a better life.

In each encounter with the blind girl, played superbly by Virginia Cherrill (1908-1996), she unknowingly manages to bash the Tramp, throwing water in his face, dropping a flower pot on his head etc. He also shows the hardships and many times unbearable conditions of the lower class, via comedy, when the Tramp chooses to sweep the streets or sets himself up in the boxing ring. In the final scene, he happens to look in to the flower store, in a clear analogy to part of the opening scene where he is afraid to peer at the model doll of a woman in a dress shop.

Slapstick is also used to show how the Tramp unknowingly insults and sometimes openly attacks various institutions and people, from mocking the mayor and police to bashing the stuck up butler or the snoopy neighbor.

Chaplin's feature The Circus, released in 1928, was his last film before the motion picture industry embraced sound recording and brought the silent movie era to a close. As his own producer and distributor (part owner of United Artists), Chaplin could still conceive City Lights as a silent film. Technically the film was a crossover, as its soundtrack had synchronized music, sound effects, and some unintelligible sounds that copied speech pattern films. The dialogue was presented on intertitles.

As a filmmaker, Chaplin was known for being a perfectionist; he was notable for doing many more "takes" than other directors at the time. At one point he fired Virginia Cherrill and began re-filming with Georgia Hale, Chaplin's co-star in The Gold Rush. This proved too expensive, so he re-hired Cherrill to finish City Lights. (Approximately seven minutes of test footage of Hale survives and is included on the DVD release; excerpts were first seen in the documentary Unknown Chaplin along with an unused opening sequence from the film.)

When Chaplin completed the film, silent films had become generally unpopular but City Lights was one of the great financial and artistic successes of Chaplin's career, and it was his personal favorite of his films. Especially fond of the final scene, he said, "[I]n City Lights just the last scene … I’m not acting …. Almost apologetic, standing outside myself and looking … It’s a beautiful scene, beautiful, and because it isn’t over-acted."

Some interesting trivia about the film: Charles Chaplin re-shot the scene in which the Little Tramp buys a flower from the blind flower-girl 342 times, as he could not find a satisfactory way of showing that the blind flower-girl thought that the mute tramp was wealthy. In terms of years, this film was Charles Chaplin's longest undertaking. It was in production from 31 December 1927 - 22 January 1931, over three years. It shot for only 180 days, though. At the beginning of the film, a town official and a woman dedicating the statue can be heard uttering nondescript words by way of a paper reed mouth instrument. The sounds were made by Charles Chaplin and this was the first time that his voice was heard on film.

On a personal note, it is one of my favorite Chaplin movies, and I recommend it to any young person wanting to experience a silent film. The key to a great silent movie is for it to draw the audience in to such an extent that one forgets they are watching a silent movie. City Lights is just that type of a movie...

my rating: 10 out of 10


  1. I completely agree that this is the film for someone who has not seen a silent film to get started with. It is simply a thing of beauty. Not only is Chaplin's great comedic skills on display here, but so is his great heart and ability to connect with the audience on such an emotional level. Virginia Cherrill is perfect, the music is perfect - well, the whole dang movie is perfect. Great review of a very great film.

  2. Lobosco,
    No Comedy Blogathon would be complete without a look at one of Chaplin's films and City Lights is a great choice to showcase.

    I adore Charlie as most know (I sure do take up for him a lot on my blog and Twitter) so people now just nod and agree! Ha Ha

    Interesting trivia on CL. I had no idea that Chaplin did over 300 takes for the 'flower girl' scene. Although, it doesn't surprise me. Just another example in why Chaplin was one of the greatest filmmakers of our time.

    A very nice look at one of his best films and an example of why it's such a disgrace that he never won an Oscar for sticking to his craft long after the talkies were passe.

  3. Dave,

    I am with you on this! One of Chaplin's masterpieces, and maybe his greatest. The combination of comedy vs. pathos is exceptional. His character of The Tramp has by now taken on multi layers of emotions far beyond the early days of rough house comedy in his early shorts. The film's ending when Virginia Cherrill realizes who he is remains one of the most cherish and moving moments in cinematic history. Excellent choice and a fantastic job on a true work of cinematic art.


  4. Thanks for the kind words. As I am getting older I am appreciating Charlie Chaplin more and more.

  5. Not my favorite Chaplin film, but it is a beautiful movie. The story is quite moving. Liked reading your review--also found the whole 342 takes bit a tad funny--could you imagine how much film was wasted! No wonder they no longer use real film for, well, a film. LOL

  6. Wow, 342 takes of one scene...indeed, Chaplin was a perfectionist. But that's why many of his films are so highly regarded today. CITY LIGHTS, THE GOLD RUSH, and MODERN TIMES are my favorite Chaplin films. I agree that no comedy blogathon would be complete without him. As always, a well-written, interesting film review!

  7. Very interesting background on the film. "City Lights" works because Charlie Chaplin stayed true to himself - a most admirable trait.

  8. Chaplin usually did stay true to himself - it caused him to have many admirers as well as enemis.

  9. I'm glad someone chose a Chaplin film for the blogathon. If only someone had done a Buster Keaton movie and a Harold Lloyd film! In any event, I admire you for tackling one of the greatest movies ever made. I especially enjoyed the production details and your mention of how the film touches on economic inequality and how the Chaplin uses the Little Tramp to poke fun at the Establishment. My favorite part of the film is the running gag of the Little Tramp and the Rich Man, who's his best friend when drunk but doesn't remember him and behaves abusively to him when sober. Chaplin always needed a brute whom he had to appease to survive, and it's interesting that here the threat isn't physical like in "The Gold Rush" but social and economic--Chaplin dealing with the effects of the Depression?

  10. I loved this film and the musical score which Chaplin composed for the film was wonderful and even though Charlie's performance is very dramatic, the comedy for which he is known for is still there. This is a wonderful film, which I will never forget.

  11. Great, great film. So glad you included Chaplin in the blogathon.