I’ve never seen a Charlie Chaplin film before. His work has been one of my biggest Blind Spots. And City Lights is regarded as one of the best movies of all time and declared by many as his best film. So I guess I barked at the right tree.
City Lights is, for those who don’t know, a silent film released in 1931 not long after the talkies’ appearance. Directed, written by and starring Charlie Chaplin, it follows Chaplin’s iconic character The Tramp falling in love with a blind flower girl and his struggles to help her. The film is a classic example of comedy and romance blended to create a beautiful, touching and funny story.
Honestly, I have a hard time watching silent films. I realized they are not my cup of tea and I need to really be in the mood for one to get through an entire viewing. Films like Sunrise (A Song of Two Humans) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are short enough to not be a burden. I actually quite liked them both, but if a silent film is too long, then I have a problem. I still have half of Metropolis to watch. But with City Lights I didn’t have any problems. This film is so enjoyable and the comedy is so well performed that I didn’t get distracted, bored or impatient.
The plot of City Lights is very simple. The Tramp falls in love with a blind girl who sells flowers on the street. The girl lives with her old grandmother and their only source of income is from selling flowers. The Tramp tries to help her in overcoming her poverty by getting jobs that he’s not very good at. But it offers us some funny and charming moments. Another part of the film is dedicated to a friendship The Tramp has with a drunk rich man he talks out of suicide. The funny and sad thing is that the rich man recognizes and is friendly to The Tramp only when he’s tipsy. A source of laughs are the scenes coming from their many encounters and high jinks.
Even though it’s a very short film of only 87 minutes, City Lights was not an easy film to make. The film has been in production for more than a year because of Chaplin’s perfectionism. This can be observed in every scene of the film. I noticed how precise every gag, every emotion is placed. It feels like a dance. This can be seen especially in the comical scenes which involve physical comedy.
Now about the characters and performances. I hate to use the word iconic, I really do, but the word applies in case of The Tramp who is one of the most iconic characters to ever grace the big screen. A symbol of silent cinema and the art we call cinema, its creation is the greatest achievement of Chaplin’s career. The Tramp belongs to the silent film era and no one else could have ever embodied him like Chaplin did. I could go on and on about how great this character is. Virginia Cherrill played the blind flower girl. Back then, it was hard to cast an actress that was able to play a blind person convincingly, but Cherrill brings in the emotions necessary for the part. Wonderful work.
The music is masterfully created. It works together with all the different emotions shared on screen. From the jolly music accompanying comical moments, the tense sounds evoking the dangers The Tramp gets into to the touching melodies we hear during the romantic and the dramatically inclined scenes, the soundtrack plays an important role in presenting the message of the film and making us get involved in the story.
In conclusion, City Lights is among the most important episodes in silent film history as well as in cinema as a whole, a great work of art that I believe everyone should see. If you want to see one Charlie Chaplin film, see City Lights.