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City Lights (1931) Review

Directed by Charles Chaplin
Charles Chaplin; Virginia Cherrill; Harry Myers; Florence Lee; Al Ernest Garcia; Hank Mann

City Lights (1931)
Another Chaplin masterpiece, City Lights may well be his greatest film, and certainly contains one of the most heartbreaking endings in cinema. Made up of equal parts slapstick comedy and unadulterated sentiment, neatly divided among two stories, Chaplin once again works his magic, converging both plots, creating one of the most tender and rewarding films to come out of Hollywood.

A young Blind Girl (Virginia Cherrill) selling flowers on the sidewalk mistakes the Little Tramp (Charles Chaplin) of being a wealthy gentleman. Feeling pity and somewhat smitten with her, the Little Tramp attempts to earn the money needed to send the Blind Girl to Vienna to restore her sight. The Tramp saves an Eccentric Millionaire (Harry Myers) from committing suicide, and the two paint the town red. But the Millionaire has a curious quirk in that, in the cold light of day, he can’t remember anything of the previous night. So the Tramp is left to his own devices until the Millionaire imbibes too heavily again. Performing various jobs to pay the Blind Girl’s rent and provide her and her Grandmother (Florence Lee) with food, the Tramp is relieved to once again stumble across the inebriated Millionaire, who hands the Tramp a thousand dollars in cash. But his bounty is short lived, for there are crooks present, and apparently a bonk on the Millionaire’s head with a slim-jim provides the same effect as sobering up, for when the police are called, the Millionaire has no memory of giving the Tramp any money. Seeing his opportunity anyway, the Tramp flees, getting the money to the Blind Girl before he is apprehended. After months in prison, the Tramp sees the Girl in a flower store window, her sight restored. Unaware of his identity, the Girl offers the Tramp a coin and a flower. With a simple touch of his hand, she knows…

The delicate beauty of City Lights helps to conceal many of the abundant plot contrivances, which are–in Chaplin’s more then capable hands–simply the rules in his universe. Otherwise, how do you accept the convenient amnesia the Millionaire displays time and again? While the morning-after “blackouts” may have some basis in reality, the blow to the head, which not only causes sobriety but the very same selective amnesia, only happens in the movies. So do coincidental meetings, such as the Tramp has, immediately after losing his boxing match, when he stumbles upon the Millionaire, who just happens to have returned from his trip abroad, and who also, more importantly, just happens to be skunked, so he can recognize the Tramp as his friend. Couple the Millionaire’s convenient idiosyncrasy with that of the Vienna doctor, who not only discovers the cure for blindness (!), but is willing to perform the procedure on the poor for free, and you should have a contrived plot that would make even the greatest Silent film enthusiast roll their eyes. Instead, of course, City Lights is as near perfect a film as one could hope.

Similar in design to The Gold Rush, in that it consists of two, relatively separate stories, one filled with comedy, while the other builds a romance and provides the sentiment Chaplin so adored, City Lights differs somewhat because Chaplin weaves both plot lines, creating a sense of a whole film instead of a collection of set pieces, which more or less make up The Gold Rush. Still, as with The Gold Rush, the sequences featuring the “girl” consists of very little comedy and provides all of the pathos. Except for the brief segment where the Blind Girl rinses her flower vase and tosses the water into the face of the Little Tramp, she provides no other comedy business. Chaplin only allows himself one very funny sequence with her, where she winds a roll of yarn, which in reality consists of the Tramp’s undergarments. (Don’t you just love how Chaplin raises his buttock to allow the thread to continue unimpeded?) In The Gold Rush, Georgia Hale’s character featured in only one of the three main sections of the film (along with the rewarding, but also coincidental, chance meeting on the boat for the film’s fade out), and while her character shared a hilarious dance with the Tramp who was tied to a dog, she, too, was used primarily to provide the film’s sentimental elements, and was rarely part of the comedy. (Merna Kennedy’s character in The Circus was almost never involved in that film’s comedic sequences, but The Circus, while including moments of sentiment, does not feel nearly as episodic as The Gold Rush, or, when analyzed, City Lights.) Chaplin tries hard to integrate the Blind Girl into his other stories, going so far as to have the Little Tramp fantasize about her when he’s knocked delirious in the boxing ring. She appears very briefly, reminding us she’s part of the film’s story, too.

For a “Silent” film made during the “talkies”, Chaplin utilizes many sound gags. Ostensibly poking fun at the “tinny” nature of early talkies (although, it could be argued that by 1931 sound films had remedied this problem), the opening “dialogue” dedicating the new statue is quite funny and on the mark. When the Little Tramp is revealed and tries to get off of the statue, a music cue to play an anthem is necessary to force the Tramp to remove his hat, thereby complicating his extrication. Later, at his drunken pal’s party, he swallows a whistle, to hilarious results. (This gag could have easily worked completely silent, and been even funnier, in my estimation. Imagine the brilliant gag when the Tramp escapes outside and silently hiccups his whistle, stopping the cab. Okay, it’s funny either way. Hilarious, in fact.)

It’s interesting how many “crude” gags Chaplin can work into his movies without offending anyone. Right off the bat Chaplin has his Little Tramp literally sit on the face of one of the statue figures, and then moments later he uses the hand of another to perform a “bronx cheer.” Hilarious, yes, but holy cow. On the city sidewalk, the Little Tramp becomes enamored of a female nude statue (or mannequin, I’m not sure) in a store window, while performing a very funny gag featuring a sidewalk elevator. In an amazingly crude but utterly hilarious blackout gag, the Little Tramp is a street cleaner, unhappy following some police horses only to turn away from them to see an oncoming elephant! And while not crude, perse, Chaplin even goes for an easy homosexual gag during the pre-fight section of the boxing match. After offering to split fifty-fifty to the new boxer, the Tramp offers an effeminate smile, making the boxer uncomfortable enough to change behind a curtain. Because the Tramp is perceived as “innocent”, Chaplin easily gets away with pushing some boundaries not normally associated with his comedy.

And then there’s the ending. Without question, City Lights would not be near the classic it is without that amazing, completely and wonderfully sentimental, final close-up. The Tramp, looking the most disheveled and downtrodden he’s ever looked on screen, stumbles along the sidewalk. As usual, the kids taunt him, and while Chaplin has the kids and passersby (and, interestingly, the “Former” Blind Girl) laugh at the Tramp, the sequence is not played for comedy. In fact, there’s nary a laugh in the entire sequence and one is forced to feel pity for the Tramp, which is actually a rather rare emotion Chaplin goes for in regards to his own character. This is reenforced by including Virginia Cherrill’s obvious amusement at the Tramp’s plight. She’s blushes with amused embarrassment when the Tramp stares at her through the window, laughing at the “conquest” she’s made. The single flower and coin she offers him almost seems to be a way for her to continue her fun, and Chaplin’s ever-present genius is his playing the Tramp as unaware that even she is making sport of him. This makes her touch, her recognition, all the more potent for us, and makes Chaplin’s final close-up one of the most important shots in film history. We feel everything he feels, which, amazingly, is subtly different on each viewing, because the emotions are so complex and visceral.

Reportedly Chaplin was unhappy with his costar, but Virginia Cherrill’s performance is near perfect. Her Blind Girl is convincing, particularly in conveying how she could misconstrue the Tramp as a wealthy person (by using the brilliant car door slam, explained rather nicely in the 1992 biopic Chaplin), but it is her stellar performance during the final scene that stands out. Her laughing at the Tramp, while seeming mean-spirited, feels true, and is performed, not with malice, but an honest reaction to someone gawking at you. The way she hands the Tramp the coin and the flower, almost nonchalant in the hand caress, which leads to her recognition, also rings true. And the recognition itself, which could have been played broadly, is, in fact, underplayed, forcing us to go through her emotions along with her. Of course it is Chaplin’s brilliance as a director that gets Cherrill’s subtle performance, but Cherrill deserves much of the credit. Proof of this is found in one of the Special Features on the MK2/Warner Brothers DVD release of City Lights, which is a screen test of Chaplin’s costar in The Gold Rush, Georgia Hale, performing the final scene in City Lights. Certainly unfair to judge a performance by a single screen test, and one made because the director was mad at his original costar (Cherrill had the tenacity to ask for an afternoon off to get her hair done), but the test shows that Hale was “acting” far too much, and Chaplin wisely went back to Cherrill.

City Lights is available on DVD from MK2 Editions and distributed by Warner Brothers. The black and white image is in great shape showing plenty of detail, particularly in that marvelous final close-up. Chaplin’s original score works well, and is here presented in mono as well as Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, that really has little separation and rarely engulfs the room. David Robinson reads a good introduction to the film on the Special Features disc, and there’s a half hour “documentary” on the film, Chaplin Today: City Lights, which talks with film director and animator Peter Lord, but is of little actual value, repeating most of what was stated in Robinson’s introduction. There’s a humorous, but wisely removed, outtake from the film, as well as an excerpt from Chaplin’s short, The Champion, featuring boxing. (Why they didn’t just include the entire short is beyond me.) The above mentioned Georgia Hale screen test is also included as well as various home movies from the time period.

City Lights was also released on DVD by CBS/Fox Video and distributed by Image Entertainment. Again the film looks beautiful, and there appears to be a smidgeon more picture than on the MK2/Warner release. The original mono score is there, too, but there is also a marvelous re-recording of Chaplin’s original score done by Carl Davis, which brings the film to a whole other level of greatness. The stereo recording envelopes you, and brings you completely and utterly into the film. It’s fantastic. The disc also includes a nice interview with Davis on how the score was re-recorded.

Kevin M. Wentink


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