City Lights (1931) – Review

Chaplin delivers another great film with an ending that is more open than usual.

The Tramp falls in love with a blind flower girl and attempts to help her.

Directed by – Charles Chaplin

Written by – Charles Chaplin, Harry Clive, Harry Crocker

Starring – Virginia Cherrill, Florence Lee, Harry Myers, Al Ernest Garcia, Hank Mann, Charles Chaplin

The more films from Charlie Chaplin that I watch, the more I’m amazed at how entertaining they all are even though there isn’t much difference from one to the next. There’s usually a girl who the Tramp falls in love with and many times the film will end with him back on his own again. Someone gets kicked in the ass, someone falls in the water, The Tramp ends up in jail and it’s never really his fault and some rich guy is going to look pretty stupid by the end. There have been moments that stood out here and there. Chaplin’s speech at the end of The Great Dictator is a perfect example. Chaplin was so much more than just a bumbling tramp and the fact that he can make the same situation just different enough to make it enjoyable every single time is a testament to his talent. With City Lights we’re treated to typical Chaplin insanity but get an ending that is much more open.

The story is pretty simple. The Tramp happens upon a blind flower girl whom he is instantly taken with. He buys a flower from her, realizing she’s blind during the transaction, and she mistakenly assumes that he is a rich man. The Tramp has also stopped a rich man from committing suicide and becomes friends with him. This rich man just happens to be drunk and is only interested in hanging out with The Tramp when he’s completely tanked. Once he’s sober he can’t remember who The Tramp is and always throws him out of his house. The Tramp does all he can to try and find work so he can help the blind girl out but it always turns out badly, usually involving the police. Finally The Tramp gathers enough money for the blind girl to get an operation to restore her sight but he’s put in jail before he finds out if the operation worked. When he’s finally released he runs into the girl, now able to see and they share a tender moment before the screen fades to black.

The Tramp meets the blind flower girl.

The fact that the film ends with The Tramp meeting the girl again is what’s really unique about this one. Normally we watch as The Tramp walks off into the distance alone, ready to move on to the next adventure. Here the screen fades to black as the previously blind girl gets to see The Tramp for who he really is. Does she accept him even though he’s not rich like she assumed? That’s really up to the viewer. Personally I vote for the happy ending but that really doesn’t work with the character of The Tramp. More than likely The Tramp will leave the girl behind feeling that her life is better off without him. He’ll give up his love so she can have a better life. Sweet and heartbreaking all at the same time, something that Chaplin does so well.

The film has its share of sappy moments but it’s also full of the usual Chaplin antics. Watching him bounce around the screen while he escapes the long arm of the law or some other angry person is hilarious. Not only does The Tramp have to deal with the police in City Lights but also the butler of the drunken rich man and, in one of the best scenes, a boxer. That really seems to be the draw of City Lights. The boxing scene is perfect Chaplin comedy as The Tramp tries to make a quick buck by taking a dive in a boxing match. His opponent runs off before the match and new opponent doesn’t want to take it easy on The Tramp. What happens is pure comedy gold which needs to be seen. So here it is!

City Lights comes towards the end of Chaplin’s run and is a perfect balance between slapstick comedy and some of the more dramatic themes of his later films. There’s really nothing new here if you’re familiar with his work but he always manages to make each film feel unique. It’s not quite as good as some of the other films I’ve seen from Chaplin but it’s still better than just about everything else I’ve watched. Fans will know what to expect but those who haven’t been introduced to Chaplin may find this a good starting point. It’s a good combination of what Chaplin had previously created and what he had still to come.

Under the marquee – Will

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