City Lights (1931)

Written & Directed by Charles Chaplin

Charles Chaplin, better known perhaps as Charlie, is one of the single most famous and most important figures in the history of moving pictures. Many would agree and few would argue (mostly because they don’t really have a case). And I have discovered all of this on just two of his films: a talkie (The Great Dictator) and now perhaps his most beloved film of all time, the silent City Lights. Well, essentially silent; there are some sound clips, but none with dialogue interesting enough. Just another reason why Chaplin was a genius.

This time, Chaplin’s lovable Tramp character finds love in the big city after encountering a lovely blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) on the street one day by chance. The Tramp himself is not too well off, but when the girl falls ill and is unable to work to make the months rent for herself and her grandma, the Tramp must try everything in his power to help his love. He goes through antics with a suicidal millionaire, an odd job, and a fight as a boxer. He has such heart for th girl that he is willing to do just about anything. And he does.

To be honest I was somewhat lukewarm on the film at first. It was quite episodic, with Chaplin conducting a series of ridiculous scenes, which were all brilliant for his great acting ability and amazing physical humor. Then he meets the flower girl and soon the episodic feel to the film vanishes and it is ever so apparent that every frame of the film is there for a purpose, working to some end. And that end is one of the best I may have ever seen in my life. Not to ruin anything, but it is one of those endings that makes everything that came before it more important. It becomes more important because it proves to the viewer, whether s/he knew it before or not, just how much has been done to develop the characters into people you care so much about, and to develop the situation that perhaps you also never thought you cared about.

Charles Chaplin just has a way about him that is larger than anything during the silent era that I have seen (I must sheepishly admit I have never seen a Keaton film). He has the knack to be extremely funny with the awesome scenarios he comes up with as well as his ability to be a physical comedian, something of a lost art in these days of sound. But at the same time, between the two films I have seen, he seems to have an abundance of heart and passion. The romance between the Tramp and the flower girl in this film is one of the most romantic stories I have seen. It really is touching to see what Chaplin’s character does, the lengths he goes to in order to assure his love will make her rent and be able to survive.

And Virginia Cherrill deserves all the credit in the world for her magnificent performance here as the blind girl. Charlie Chaplin is one thing, and he is brilliant as the main character whose eyes we see the story unfold, but without a beautiful, equally brilliant actor to play the lead female part, I fear the romantic aspect, the best in the film, would have been much more flat and would not have been nearly as effective. And the effectiveness is what makes this film stand out. It is one that I certainly look forward to revisiting in the future. Perhaps I will perceive new meaning when I am older in my years and I too have experienced the brilliant push of love in my heart.

Adam Kuhn

Adam Kuhn was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, where he attended Saint Charles Preparatory School. He studied History at the University of Cincinnati, where he was a contributor of The News Record, the twice-weekly, independent student news organization. He has been writing film reviews and blogging since 2009.

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