Even though “talkies”, or talking motion pictures, began in 1927, not all the filmmakers embraced it. Charlie Chaplin still managed to make three silent movies: The Circus (1928), Modern Times (1936), and this movie, City Lights (1931). This is the first Charlie Chaplin movie I have watched so I really can’t judge, but from most of the people I know who have watched his movies, this was the best. After watching the movie, I had no trouble believing them.
The film takes place in an unknown city. It could be anywhere – London, New York, Los Angeles – it’s up to your imagination. It begins with the unveiling of a group of statues, and when the mayor takes the white cloth off – lo and behold – there’s the sleeping Tramp (Chaplin)! After a series of hilariously contrived comedic sequences, the Tramp finally gets off the statues and leaves the scene. After a bit of wandering, he comes across a pretty flower girl (Cherrill) and becomes instantly smitten. He quickly decides to buy a flower, but after a while, it becomes apparent that the girl is blind. That does not deter him, however, and despite his own poverty, helps her as much as he can. Good thing he meets a millionaire who, though he only recognizes the Tramp when he is drunk, does a lot in helping him impress the blind girl. Courtesy of his wealthy friend, the blind girl now thinks the Tramp is a millionaire, which is further aided by the fact that he gives her a huge sum of money to pay her rent and send her abroad for her eyes to be cured. The ending is perhaps one of the most touching and pure and utterly beautiful scenes in movie history. I haven’t watched all of them, but I daresay you have to watch this.
Being a relative noob in the world of silent-era films, I told myself to be open-minded and ready for anything, but in reality, I wasn’t given such a hard time. The background music and the sound effects nudged the plot along when there were no dialogue lines flashing across the scene. It seems that the music would actually say what is unsaid, helping the audience understand what’s going on with its crescendoes and fluctuating tempo.There was this hilarious part when the Tramp was in a party, acting slightly tipsy, when he accidentally swallowed a whistle. Now, in real life, a person would have required the help of someone knowledgeable of the Heimlich maneuver, but Chaplin skillfully makes the most out of the sound effects. The Tramp ends up disrupting the party by making whistle sounds whenever he breathes and hiccups, ending up hailing a cab and attracting a pack of dogs.
Chaplin’s performance was superb. Good ol’ slapstick comedy at its best. I thought I’d get sick of it after a while, but not really. The film was arranged in a sort of episodic quality, much like a series of short films that featured Chaplin handling situations clumsily. There was a touch of drama with regard to the blind girl, but this movie is, more than anything, a comedy. Chaplin’s really good at this; I can’t help but be impressed that he wrote, directed, acted, composed, and whatever else he did for this film.
What I especially liked about City Lights is how, despite the lack of speech, the film still manages to evoke a lot of feelings from me. There were times I was doubled up in laughter, and there were times that I was staring so intently at the screen, the emotions were so intense. We’re currently living in a world where movies are watched mainly because of their visual effects and loud music, where Hollywood thinks louder and brighter is better, and watching City Lights is a refreshing change from that. It gently reminds us that sometimes all you need for a great film is a good story and superb acting.
In a nutshell…