Release Date: January 30th, 1931
Directed by: Charlie Chaplin
Written by: Charlie Chaplin
Music by: Charlie Chaplin, Jose Padilla
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Florence Lee, Harry Myers, Henry Bergman, Albert Austin, Jean Harlow (extra)
United Artists, 87 Minutes
“You can see now?” – The Tramp, “Yes, I can see now.” – A Blind Girl
Many consider this to be Charlie Chaplin’s magnum opus. Some even consider this to be the greatest American film ever made. Having finally seen it, I find it hard to argue against either of those claims. Granted, it isn’t my favorite American film ever made, but it is in the upper echelon and deservedly so.
When this film came out in 1931, Hollywood had embraced sound. The silent era was quickly dwindling away but Chaplin stuck to the cinematic style that made him famous, keeping this a silent picture despite the film industry’s technological shift and the public’s demand for “talkie” pictures.
Charlie Chaplin, alongside his leading lady Virginia Cherrill, proved that you didn’t need sound to tell a compelling story and that they could convey immense emotion through their acting.
In fact, the final scene of the film is considered one of the best acted scenes in the history of film. In 1949, critic James Agee called it the “greatest single piece of acting ever committed to celluloid.” Not a bad outcome, especially considering the rocky behind the scenes relationship of Chaplin and Cherrill.
In the story, Chaplin returns as the Tramp character. He falls in love with a blind flower girl (Cherrill) and also befriends a rich drunk (Myers), who he saves from suicide. Over the course of the film, he tries to win over the flower girl and when he discovers her financial woes, does whatever he can to try and help, displaying the selflessness of his character.
At one point, the Tramp goes as far as competing in a boxing match to try and get enough money to pay the girl’s rent so that she and her grandmother won’t be evicted. Even though he finds himself in over his head in many situations, this is the sweetest that the Tramp character has ever been.
Ultimately, he goes to jail but not after he gives enough money to the girl to not only pay her rent but to afford her the expensive surgery she needs to get her vision back. After he gets out of jail, months later, we are treated to one of the best endings in the history of cinema.
City Lights is so superbly acted that there really isn’t anything else like it, especially considering that it was a silent picture that came out after its era. It is a perfect balance of the type of humor you’d expect from Chaplin while being a real romantic drama that packs a lot of emotional weight.
It was also the first film scored by Chaplin and the music is pretty close to perfect, especially the flower girl’s theme that was composed by Jose Padilla (he actually successfully sued Chaplin for not being given credit for his contribution).
City Lights is a phenomenal work of art that was directed by, starred and composed by one man, a true auteur of his and any era.