City Lights

AFI Rank: #76
Year Released: 1931
Director: Charles Chaplin
Actors: Charles Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill

I watched City Lights back to back with Frankenstein to look at two AFI-top-100 movies that were both released in 1931. They are a powerful example of just how the movie industry was changing. Frankenstein was the incoming wave of the future - talking films, full of roars and screams and angry villagers. The sound in Frankenstein is a key to its power. In comparison, Charlie Chaplin deliberately chose to keep his release of City Lights silent. The power here is not in the yelling, but in the subtlety - the raise of an eyebrow, the slump in the shoulders. Without sound to distract, City Lights is all about connecting with the person on the screen.

Chaplin is a tramp, down on his luck, struggling to get by in the world. He encounters a blind flower selling woman, and his heart is taken by her gentle grace. Even though he has little, he gives it to her. Soon he is doing his best to hold down a job so that he can bring her food. He wants to help her get an eye operation so she can see. I admit I have a minor quibble here. The report of the operation says it was offered for free to the poor. Surely, with her about to be evicted from her apartment for non-payment, she is poor! So she should have gotten her operation for free. Still, a minor point.

So the tramp even tries boxing to earn the money for her. This is one of the great scenes in the movie and still is laugh-out-loud funny, with the characters dodging and switching places. The tramp's on-again, off-again friend offers him the money he needs - but promptly forgets and accuses him of thievery. The tramp risks all to give the money to her, and takes his jail sentence stoically. When he finally gets out, it is only chance that the flower girl now recognizes him by his hand's feel, and we are not quite sure if she will take him in, now that she realizes he is "just a bum". The romantic in me says that she will love him no matter what, since he did everything within his power to help her out.

Yes, Chaplin could have added sound here, but I'm not sure it would have been a positive change. The focus is on the body movements - sometimes comedic, sometimes gentle and tender. It's the fun of the missing chairs at the dinner scene. The delicacy of the way he steals away so she can keep the change and have a few more pennies in her purse. The audience's worry as he steps back and forth, nearly falling into an open elevator shaft.

It's a testament to its power that even now, in a world firmly entrenched in talking films, we can still watch City Lights and fully appreciate it. We enjoy the humor, appreciate the emotion, and get drawn up in the story.

It is fascinating to me how even in a romantic movie, featuring a main female character, that it is still an almost all male cast. The grandmother barely says two words, and they are just about Chaplin. You would think they would talk about her new flower shop, or about what it's like to be able to see, or so on. And every other person in the movie who speaks is male.

A must-see classic.

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