City Lights (1931)

City Lights (1931) – The most recent Academy Award winner for Best Picture was The Artist, a [mostly] silent film about a silent film actor whose career hits the skids with the invention of talkies. It’s a great and moving picture but in real life one of the biggest silent film stars in the world was Charlie Chaplin, and he kept on making silent pictures even after talkies became all the rage… and they were hits, because Charlie Chaplin was awesome. Even one of his “sound” films, Modern Times, is essentially a silent film. City Lights has some sound, like kazoos during one guy’s speech towards the beginning and a whistle towards the middle of the film, but is a silent film made the same year as such early talkie classics as Frankenstein and The Public Enemy. Of course, part of the beauty of silent films (and the big reason I think they should make more of them, dammit!) is the amazing creativity that blooms from the struggles of working within limitation. Chaplin did eventually do talkies (The Great Dictator is a masterpiece and Limelight ain’t too bad either) but not as his Tramp character that made him famous. To hear the Tramp talk would almost undo everything magical that makes the character work. Anyway, City Lights is considered to be one of Chaplin’s best films.

Chaplin’s Tramp character is just getting by, as usual, sleeping on a statue in a public park. One day he meets a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill). He buys some flowers and lets her keep the change when she hears a man get into a car and drive off, assuming the Tramp has left. Later, he’s down by the river when he sees a drunken man (Harry Myers) tying himself to a millstone, getting ready to drown himself. The Tramp saves the man, who pledges eternal friendship. As it turns out, he’s a millionaire. He takes the Tramp back to his mansion and lets him have the car. The Tramp uses it to give the blind flower girl a ride back to her house, where she lives with her grandmother (Florence Lee). He enjoys playing the benevolent millionaire for the flower girl, but when the real millionaire sobers up he doesn’t remember his “friend for life” and has his butler (Allan Garcia) throw him out. However the next time the millionaire is drunk, he sees his old pal the Tramp and they have a night on the town. However, when the Tramp finds out that the blind flower girl needs money for rent and for a doctor that may be able to cure her blindness, he finds his now-sober friend less than helpful. The Tramp becomes determined to help this girl, earning money however he can.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call City Lights Chaplin’s best film. Modern Times, The Gold Rush, and The Great Dictator are fighting it out in my heart for that honor. Still, it’s very funny. The boxing match is classic. I think it’s safe to call it the funniest boxing match ever committed to film. Furthermore, the movie has heart. You know me, I’m all about heart. Few silent stars understood pathos half as well as Chaplin. I think if you are a performer and you don’t have a profound respect and admiration for what Chaplin does… well you’re in the wrong business my friend. The end of this movie… well, if it doesn’t at least bring a tear to your eye then your heart of made of stone. I don’t want to go on about how “those kids today’ don’t have the patience for silent film, especially since I was born over fifty years after the rise of the talkies, but I think it’s a damn shame more people don’t give them a shot. In my heart I was hoping that The Artist and its universal acclaim would lead to a new wave of silent film, but in my head I know that hope is naïve and unlikely. So all we can do is go back and revisit the classics. City Lights is a damn good place to start.

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