City Lights

City Lights

*****

Reviewed by: James Benefield

The year is 1931, and 'talkies' are all the rage. The production of silent films is dwindling. However, one Charles Chaplin wants to make another silent movie. Chaplin believes that a paucity of dialogue in a film is akin to a universal cinematic language. Using the power of his co-founded United Artists he makes City Lights: a comedy romance in pantomime.

But this is not the spectacle of Chaplin burying his head in the sand. He's clearly aware he is operating in a world of talkies. We enter the action in the middle of an unveiling ceremony held for a new statue in a nameless, American city. The official pulling the cloth begins speaking; yet the sound which emanates from his mouth is that of a kazoo. His accomplices then follow suit with variations on the kazoo theme. The spoken word is unimportant here. However, sound - the syncing of sound too - is highly significant.

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When the statue is unveiled, the official discovers the tramp sleeping on the monument's lap. Unfazed, the tramp walks away. Within minutes, Chaplin meets a young flower seller (Virginia Cherrill), who is sitting on a street corner. The flowers are beautiful, but she can't see them. She's blind. The tramp is immediately drawn to her.

The seeds of the film are sown; there is a developing relationship born out of social conscience, and a subtext concerning vision and sound, and subsequently appearances and reality. Falling in love, and using his influence with a rich duke he also met on the street, Charlie concocts a series of hare-brained schemes. He's trying to raise cash to pay for the operation the flower girl needs to regain her vision.

Like all of Chaplin's work, City Lights has a social conscience. Aside from the flower girl plot, the tramp is baffled throughout his foray into the decadent world of the eccentric millionaire (Harry Myers). The millionaire gives the tramp smart clothes, and the upper classes at parties assume the tramp is one of them. Chaplin only draws attention when he accidentally swallows a whistle. With impeccable comic timing, the party is thus silenced.

Nobody notices when you wear the right clothes, but when you make a social faux pas it's dreadful. Class and wealth in this world are not indicators of human value. These people can be as venal as anyone. And, worse, when they realise you don't fit in, the punishment is excruciating. The tramp is made to feel wretched. It's a message which would have played well in the dark financial depression of 1931.

This also ties in with the film's theme of the relationship between truth, feeling and images. Indeed, the romantic storyline deals with the seeming contradiction between love at first sight and love being blind. It's resolved with the famous, incredibly beautiful, final sequence. It's not that love and sight aren't related, they're just not mutually exclusive. The same can be said about the relationship between wealth and appearance. And sound and vision.

Chaplin undersells the movie when he calls it a comedy romance in pantomime. Of course, it has elements of all three. Chaplin is a great physical performer with a lot of imagination, and consequently the film has a lot of exaggerated, pantomime laughs. It's also a wonderful love story, and it claims the most romantic, life affirming final shot of any film in cinema.

But it's also highly intelligent; it's aware of its time and place in both society and cinema. Chaplin gives an optimistic message about social mobility in a time of great economic crisis, as seen by the fate of him and the flower girl. He also silences critics of silent cinema and talkies, combining a synced soundtrack with a more-or-less silent film. A complete package then, and as close to perfection as any film is likely to get.

Reviewed on: 08 May 2010
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City Lights packshot
A little tramp falls for a flower-seller.
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Director: Charles Chaplin

Writer: Charles Chaplin

Starring: Charles Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Harry Myers

Year: 1931

Runtime: 83 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: US

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