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  • Carrie Specht

City Lights: Review


City Lights is an emotionally gripping comedy that encapsulates the genius and creative reach of Charlie Chaplin. The film incorporates Chaplin’s one of a kind style of film making, as well as his innocent ability to connect with audiences both old and young alike. Lights embodies what Chaplin’s career was all about, that is to create films that stood on their own right during their time, as well as stand in their own right decades later. Though this film was made in 1931, Chaplin’s uncanny ability to blend emotion with action and fuse it all together with his, “Superstar” attraction is one of the reasons why he is widely considered as one of the greats of all time, and rightfully so. Chaplin dominated the film circuit during his time and still to this day is extensively recognized as one of the most iconic film stars of all time.

City Lights is a film about a man in love, who is down on his luck, who does his best to give a woman the best the world has to offer, yet finds nothing but trouble for himself in doing so. Only Chaplin can execute the necessary emotion and body language needed to convey a deep sense of reverence about the sacrifice and reward of, “doing the right thing”. More so than that, only Chaplin can convey in a way - the sentiments of being in love, on a solid foundation of humor and hilarity, and top it off with the virtue of simply being human. Though this film was released during a time when sound was slowly but surely taking over cinema, Chaplin proved that emotions are not written in a script, but rather interpreted by the heart. As Chaplin famously said, “I don’t need sound to be interesting. I am interesting”. And this film certainly proves that point.

Though Chaplin’s star persona is enough to carry any film to monumental heights, City Lights is not without its flaws. After all, any creative entity has its fair share of shortcomings, even if it involves one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. Like Chaplin’s many other works, it can seem like a very tedious process trying to dissect and interpret each scene, dialogue, etc. and City Lights is no exception to this critical analysis process. However, I would like to focus on two aspects of the film where I believe it dissatisfies; this is not to say that in these areas the movie “failed”. Rather, for me personally it is in these two areas that the film does not meet its own expectations.

The plot revolves around a man who is a run-of-the-mill kind of guy who gets himself into unusual predicaments. Through a series of uncommon occurrences he sees a blind girl selling flowers and falls in love. After buying a flower from the girl he goes on about his day until he saves a wealthy drunken man from killing himself. The rich man quickly befriends Chaplin and the two go on a rendezvous in celebration of the newly kindled friendship. It is here where I would like to point out my first critique.

The extent of the scenes and interpretations between the wealthy man and Chaplin are very abundant. Though it may have been done to build a plot or to perhaps push the plot in an emotional direction, there seems to been a lack of dialogue offered to the audience. Much of the interactions between Chaplin and the rich man are in the form of body language. Furthermore, at times the interactions seem to be more bewildering than clarifying where the scene is going next. Comparatively, the body language of the two men in the beginning of their interaction perhaps is not wholesome to what the scenes required. This combination of brief dialogue and unclear body language makes the exchanges between the two men on screen seem very disorganized. Though I would like to point out, the perplexities in lack of dialogue and eccentric body motions get more polished as the movie goes along.

After Chaplin and the rich man celebrate their new friendship, the rich man wakes up the following morning and has no recollection of Chaplin. As the dialogue in the film poetically and stirringly says, “A sober morning awakens a new man”. After the wealthy man fails to recognize Chaplin, our lovable “tramp” is kicked out of the mansion. Though not before the wealthy man in his drunken state gives Chaplin the keys to his car the night before. Once escorted out, Chaplin comes across the blind woman with whom he has fallen in love. After buying more flowers from her, Chaplin escorts the woman to her home in the rich man’s car. Naturally, the blind woman assumes that Chaplin is a wealthy man. The next day Chaplin arrives at the location where the blind woman was selling flowers, only to find that she is not there. He arrives at her house to see that she is ill and requires help in needing to pay her rent. So, the Little Tramp sets out to earn enough money to aid the woman. He enters a boxing competition and tries to convince his opponent to, “Split the money Fifty-fifty”. Because his opponent does not agree to this arrangement, he sets out to fight him despite being severely outmatched.

This is where my second critique about the film arises. Once in the boxing ring, Chaplin delivers yet another brilliant comedic sequence of events as only Chaplin can. However, this sequence is very short lived in contrast to the rest of the film. Throughout the movie we see Chaplin get himself into unusual situations, to which he gets out of in very humorous and peculiar ways. However, during this sequence, which seems to be the perfect set-up for an infinite amount of gags and laughs, we see Chaplin deliver only a few spells of comedic genius. Perhaps Chaplin wanted to have the plot grow, rather than harvest in the comedic scenes; however, this series of scenes and sequences seemed as if Chaplin did not want to take it further. That is not to say that the short bursts of genius we see in the boxing ring is anything short of brilliant. Chaplin keeps the audience entertained throughout the entire progression, and yields a humble defeat to his stronger opponent.

Continuing after he fails to win the boxing competition, Chaplin arrives at the wealthy mans house again. The man is intoxicated and lets Chaplin know that he is willing to help the blind girl and offers Chaplin a thousand dollars. While in the house, they are accompanied by two thieves who render the wealthy man unconscious. As Chaplin runs after the two thieves the police arrive and see that Chaplin is in possession of the wealthy man’s money. Once the rich man awakens, Chaplin begs him to tell the police that he gave him the money; however, the man does not recognize Chaplin. Chaplin escapes and finds himself at the blind girls house and gives her the money to pay her rent. We then see a doctor in Venice who has found a cure for blindness. Chaplin is then escorted to jail and we see a montage of calendar dates sliding across the screen.

Finally Chaplin is let out of jail clad in torn and tattered clothes. He comes across the blind woman, who now has a flower shop of her own and her vision is restored. She expects the wealthy man of her dreams to come and reveal himself to her. Instead what she sees is Chaplin. Thinking that Chaplin is a scrounger, she offers him some money and Chaplin refuses. Determined to give him some aid, in the same way that it was given to her, she grabs his hands. Through their touch she recognizes Chaplin as the film closes to an end.

The film as a whole is a glowing example of how far Chaplin was able to stretch his acting range. Taking audiences from uncontrollable laughter, to profound sadness, to even making them think without even saying a word. City Lights is only a spark in Chaplin’s illustrious career. However, at times it does not do Chaplin justice. Chaplin could have extended certain scenes for comedic purposes and clarified others. Perhaps he wanted to incorporate all aspects of human emotion into his movies; maybe that is what makes them endure the test of time. Whatever the case may be, The Little Tramp still finds a way to inject a dose of genius into everything, even his flaws.

#CharlieChaplin #SilentMovies #TheLittleTramp