City Lights (1931)

“Children who see them at a certain age don’t notice they’re “silent” but notice only that every frame speaks clearly to them, without all those mysterious words that clutter other films. Then children grow up, and forget this wisdom, but the films wait patiently and are willing to teach us again.” (Roger Ebert)

‘City Lights’, directed by Charlie Chaplin in 1931, is an American silent comedy. Chaplin plays a tramp who falls for a blind flower seller played by Virginia Cherrill who mistakes him for a millionaire. At the same time the tramp saves the life of a drunk businessman who then befriends him, but only remembers who the tramp is when his is drunk, promptly forgetting in the morning when sober. Ultimately, the tramp is able to gain money to send the flower seller to hospital to get her sight restored, but at the cost of a spell in prison. One of Chaplin’s later silent films, ‘City Lights’ contains a number of classic moments of mime. These include the character’s introduction, asleep in the arms of a statue about to be unveiled by an official, a boxing match in which the tramp deftly manages to avoid any engagement with his opponent, and a meticulous scene involving a trapdoor in a street. It also plays on a number of political preoccupations of Chaplin, his invisibility as the tramp to be the flower seller and the businessman acting as a fairly clear subtext for his views on the working class. It’s a film that combines slapstick with romance and a strong thread of politics, but its existence as a silent movie at a time when talkies were being released makes is somehow more nostalgic. Chaplin plays with this notion: some characters, officials and the wealthy, early in the film speak but only in a meaningless burble, whilst the working class tramp remains silent but somehow far more expressive.

Would I recommend it? It has everything you might want from a Chaplin movie including the sentimentality. Watch with ‘Steamboat Bill Jr.’ for alternative silent performance without the soppiness, or ‘À Nous la Liberté‘ for more left wing comedy from the same year.

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