Cinematic Century

1931 – City Lights

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Well, well, well, look what we have here. Even after last week’s first foray into the brave new world of the talkies we’re jumping back into the silents for yet another film from the oeuvre of good old Charlie Chaplin. Even though the talkies were becoming a bigger and bigger animal in the world of film, Chaplin remained resolute and continued putting out his silent comedies for quite some time, and today’s film may be my favorite of all his silent comedies. There’s a caveat in that sentiment, and we’ll be getting to that film in a couple months. But, as it stands, City Lights is perhaps the greatest example of what Chaplin could do with a story. At least, as far as my opinion goes. Which meant it was pretty much a lock for the position as my favorite film of 1931, despite some surprisingly stiff competition. We have the two films that essentially created the  Universal Monsters series as we know it, Dracula and Frankenstein. But, and I know this is kind of a common opinion nowadays, but Dracula kind of drags, becoming a shockingly staid production, even for 1931. Other films of the era were showing the things that could be done with cinematography, but they sure weren’t on display in Dracula. Frankenstein though is a hell of a film, but one that’s easily overshadowed by its sequel a few years later. It can’t beat Chaplin’s heart though. We could also talk about to landmark films in the mobster genre, Public Enemy and Little Caesar. But, while both of those movies are pretty fun, they aren’t much more than that. Still worth a watch though. Honestly, the biggest threat to City Light’s spot on top is probably Fritz Lang’s M. However, as shameful as this is, I’ve actually never gotten around to watching this film. It certainly sounds up my ally, but I really can’t imagine it upsetting City Lights, because this is legitimately one of my favorite films of all time.

It’s been said that Chaplin assumed the talkies were going to be a fad, and not one worth his time, which explains his almost stubborn refusal to change with the times. That, and apparently he wasn’t quite sure how to take his standard Little Tramp formula and add in the element of sound. Although, it also appears that he was becoming a little paranoid about this assertion, because the filming of City Lights seems to reveal a creator who was doing everything in his power to show that his preferred form of artistic expression was still as valid as ever. Chaplin has always seemed to be an obsessive creator, but this film took that to another level. The production lasted almost two years and he worked hard to iron out a near flawless film. He tossed around a litany of ideas for this film, trying to create the perfect representation of what his type of story was. All in the hopes of convincing the public at large that his films, and on a larger scale silent comedies as a whole, weren’t irrelevant. He created a story that traversed social classes, that used that patented Chaplin mixture of comedy and heart, and that played to all of his strengths. And, it seems to have worked. Initial reactions to the film appear to be primarily mixed, mostly in reaction to Chaplin’s decision not to use sound. But, as time has gone on, the film has found its audience, and been recognized as the true accomplishment that it is. Hell, it’s often labeled as Chaplin’s personal favorite of his films. And you can see why, because it really is the perfect example of everything he did.

 

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As usual, City Lights tells the story of the Little Tramp, a good-hearted fellow who is more often than not don on his luck. The film opens with him being ridiculed by a gathered mass of people because he’s been caught sleeping on a newly dedicated statue. He flees from the mockery of the crowd, and ends up encountering a beautiful woman who is selling flowers on the side of the street. The Tramp chats with the woman, and quickly realizes that she’s blind. She’s kind to him, but also get confused and assumes that he’s a rich man with his own car, and the Tramp decides to let that image of himself stand, and sneaks off. He spends the rest of the day wandering the streets, smelling the flower he bought from the girl, and ends up finding himself near the waterfront that night. Which is when he encounters a very drunk man who is preparing to kill himself. The Tramp saves the man, after some shenanigans, and the man is so thankful that he decides to take the Tramp home with him to thank him. And we learn that this man is actually a millionaire, who has been driven to suicide by the fact that his wife has just left him. But, he really seems to enjoy the Tramp’s company, and the two end up having a hell of a night, and the next morning he even lets the Tramp borrow his car, and gives him some money. Which the Tramp promptly spends by visiting the Blind Girl again, and buying every flower in her basket.

Unfortunately, when the Tramp returns to his new friend’s mansion, he finds that a sober Millionaire doesn’t find him quite as charming as a drunk one. The Tramp is thrown out of the mansion, and forced to wander the streets again. Which becomes something of a pattern. Every night he runs into the millionaire, has a blast with him, and is then kicked out in the morning, leaving him time to spend with the Blind Girl, gradually befriending her. He even starts spending time with her at her home, always when her grandmother is out selling flowers. The Tramp hasn’t corrected her about her assumption that he’s a rich man, and he begins to shower her with groceries and tokens of his affection. But, around this time he also learns that the Millionaire is planning on taking a trip to Europe, losing the Tramp his source of occasional income. So, he tries to get an actual job, working as a street sweeper to continue helping out the Blind Girl. It’s an okay gig, and it even gives him time to slip off and be with the Blind Girl. Until one day, when the Tramp spends too much time with her, due to the fact that he finds a news article saying that a doctor has developed a method to regain sight to the blind. He also learns that the Blind Girl and her grandmother are facing eviction, and he vows to make enough money to save them, and get her the surgery. But, he’s not going to make it from his job, because he gets fired for being late once too often. So, seeking a last-minute way out, the Tramp accepts  job as an amateur boxer, and even though he puts up a hell of a fight, he loses and doesn’t get the money.

Things looks pretty bleak for the Tramp, until a miracle arrives. The Millionaire! He shows up again, and happily reconciles with the Tramp, taking him home to his mansion once more. The Tramp tells the Millionaire about his need for money, and the Millionaire happily gives him what he needs. Unfortunately, two burglars happen to be in the mansion, and they attempt to rob the Millionaire and frame the Tramp. The Millionaire’s butler hates the Tramp, so he plays along with it, getting the police on his trail. But, he still has the money. So, the Tramp returns to the Blind Girl’s home, and gives her the money that will be enough to pay off her home and get her that surgery. He then says goodbye to her, telling her that he is going to be gone for quite some time. She tries to stop him, but the Tramp leaves the face the music, and turn himself in for the robbery that he had nothing to do with. The Tramp then spends quite some time in prison, and when he’s finally released he returns to the old neighborhood, eager to find the Blind Girl. But, she’s not on her corner selling flowers. No, she got that surgery, regained her eyesight, and now owns a pretty lucrative flower-shop. The Tramp goes to meet her, and she initially is disgusted by the strange tramp who has wandered into her shop. But, she feels a strange familiarity to him, and slowly realizes that this was her mysterious benefactor, the man who was a friend when she needed it most, and who changed her life, all while sacrificing everything, just out of the goodness of his heart.

 

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This film is a true masterpiece. It’s a film that blows me away every time I see it, and remains one of the most effective and beautiful stories that I’ve ever experienced. Chaplin is in rare form in this film, absolutely killing it in ways that I’ve never seen, even in his other films. This is a movie that is probably most remembered for its ending, and the terrific and emotional performance that Chaplin gives us as his face runs the gamut of fear, anxiety, and joy as the Blind Girl realizes who he is, but I feel like it doesn’t get the proper respect it should as one of his absolute funniest performances as well. Every one of the scenes with Chaplin cavorting around the city with the drunken Millionaire get me crying with laughter, as he weaves his expertly crafted slapstick. The whole idea of the drunken Millionaire who loves the Tramp when he’s drunk but hates him when he’s sober is brilliant enough, and Harry Myers brings the character to life in a wonderfully over-the-top manner. We’re also gifted with Florence Lee’s performance as the Blind Girl, which I know was something that Chaplin worried about. He knew that this character and her performance was the key to this movie working, and Lee does a terrific job, especially at the end, when it really does feel like the movie could end on an absolute down-beat, with her disgustedly banishing the Tramp from her sight, only to have her realize that this was the man who changed her life.

I often see City Lights referred to as a romantic film, and while I certainly think that the Tramp and the Blind Girl’s relationship does take on a romantic side to it, the film really gets down to something that I find the most important about the Tramp character in general. He’s just an incredibly good person. Everything in his life seems to be going against him, and he frequently is put in situations where he has the worst luck imaginable, but he never lets it get him down. I’ve said before that the Tramp is an incredibly lonely character, a perpetual outsider, but he never lets it keep him down. He could be bitter and jaded, a more aloof character who doesn’t seem interested in most people. Kind of like how Buster Keaton’s characters usually are. But, instead, the Tramp ignores the fact that nothing ever seems to go right in his life, and he tries to help people. Yeah, he probably loves the Blind Girl, and he clearly falls from her at first sight, but I really do believe that the Tramp would have done the things that he did even if he didn’t love her. Because that’s just who the Tramp seems to be. He saw someone in worse shape than himself, and did everything that he could to help her. We have no idea if the Blind Girl decided to date the Tramp or anything, the film just ends with her realizing what a pivotal role he played in her life, and how incredible it seems to her that a man like the Tramp would do everything within his power to help her. Because it is incredible. The Tramp does a remarkable thing. He helps someone when he has the ability to do so. Which is something that, in general, people don’t do enough. So, while it’s perfectly understandable that this film is remembered as a classic of Chaplin’s romances, to me it’ll always be a story about decency, and the idea that no matter who you are, and what position you’re in, there’s always someone you can help.

 

City Lights was written and directed by Charlie Chaplin and released by United Artists, 1931.

 

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