15 February 2003 | lugonian
True Blind Love
CITY LIGHTS (United Artists, 1931), written, directed and starring Charlie Chaplin (1889- l977), is a silent comedy-drama released at the height of the sound era. Distributing a movie in the silent film tradition at the time when silents were considered a fad, Chaplin gambled with this production, and made it pay off. Although Chaplin hails THE GOLD RUSH (1925) as the one movie he would most want to be remembered, CITY LIGHTS nearly dims out his GOLD RUSH and at the same time, practically places his other silent masterpiece, THE CIRCUS (1928) to oblivion. CITY LIGHTS has stood the test of time, balancing perfectly a mixture of comedy and drama, but in Chaplin's case, pathos.
Subtitled, "A comedy romance in pantomime," the story opens in the early morning where the mayor is dedicating a statue to the citizens of the city. After the unveiling, the crowd finds a little tramp (Charlie Chaplin) sleeping on the lap of one of the figures. As he tries to climb down, he encounters one problem after another. This opening scene alone is priceless. With such a great beginning, Chaplin adds in more comedic insertions blended into the plot. The theme to CITY LIGHTS is remembered mainly about a tramp's love for a blind girl. However, there is a subplot, involving the tramp's involvement with a millionaire drunk, which, by far, takes up more time than the sentimental love story. These two segments actually set the pattern. First segment, set in the afternoon, finds Charlie walking down the street, examining a nude statue in a shop, being annoyed by some newsboys making fun of his tattered clothing. He encounters a beautiful blonde girl (Virginia Cherrill) selling flowers. After she drops one of her flowers, Charlie notices her feeling about the sidewalk for it, thus, realizing she's blind. Smitten by her beauty, he picks it up and pays her for it. Minutes later, the slamming of a limousine door is heard, with the girl believing the kind gentleman, Charlie, to be a millionaire. Second segment, set at night, finds Charlie encountering a drunk (Harry Myers) trying to commit suicide by drowning himself. Just as Charlie is about to save him, he in turn falls into the river. The drunk, in gratitude for saving his life, takes Charlie under his wing to accompany him to various night clubs until dawn. By morning, the millionaire, now sober, fails to recognize or remember Charlie and orders orders his butler to escort this stranger out of his mansion. This running gag that's repeated in the story might play itself as repetitious, but Chaplin manages to breathe new life and funnier routines through his encounters with the drunk and their all night binges. By day, Charlie looks after the blind girl and worries when she's not at her usual corner selling flowers. Finding that she's ill and being cared by her grandmother (Florence Lee), whose behind with her rent and threatened with eviction, Charlie offers to help by obtaining and losing various jobs, ranging from street-cleaning to fighting in a boxing match. Reading in a newspaper of a European doctor who restores sight for the blind, Charlie gives the girl $1,000 for an operation, the money offered to him by the drunken millionaire, who, after sober, accuses Charlie of robbing him, has his arrested and serving jail time. The climatic finish is truly the best thing Chaplin has ever done and certainly one not to be missed.
Featured in the supporting cast are Henry Bergman, Allan Garcia, Albert Austin, and Hank Mann. While much has been discussed about Chaplin's performance, his co-star, Virginia Cherrill, as the blind girl (no name given), should not go without mention. Even though her future film career consisted of forgettable programmers, and at one time being one of the future wives of film actor, Cary Grant, her performance is excellent by all means. Although it's been said that future film star Jean Harlow (1911-1937) appears as an unbilled extra in the night club sequence, she is visible in a surviving still photograph, but no such scene appears in the finished product.
Unlike THE GOLD RUSH, CITY LIGHTS had limited showings in revival houses in later years, and was never allowed to be distributed to television. Being first introduced to CITY LIGHTS at New York City's revival movie house, The Regency Theater, formerly located on Broadway and 67th Street, in 1979, the memorable thing about this event are the roars of laughter from its theater packed audience. There was one man, probably a big fan reliving his childhood memories, whose laughter almost drowned out the underscoring of the film. No doubt he was having more fun watching this movie than anyone else. Watching CITY LIGHTS surrounded by an appreciative audience theater is one way to truly appreciate and experience the feel of silent film comedy, and to think back as to how the audience reacted in same back in 1931.
After Chaplin's death in December of 1977, CITY LIGHTS, along with his other silent features, were not only resurrected for a new generation to endure, but became readily available on video cassette at the time of Chaplin's 100th birthday, 1989. In later years, CITY LIGHTS was frequently revived on various cable channels, ranging from Turner Network Television (TNT) in the early 1990s, American Movie Classics up to 2001, and finally Turner Classic Movies. The complete musical soundtrack that accompanies CITY LIGHTS happens to be the original score composed to perfection by Chaplin himself.
Much has been written and said about CITY LIGHTS over the years. To learn more about the making, difficulties and long term preparations to CITY LIGHTS, either watch Kevin Blownlow's 1980 documentary, Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film, as narrated by James Mason, or Brownlow's other documentaries dedicated entirely to Chaplin's career, including outtakes to CITY LIGHTS as well as scenes involving Virginia Cherrill's temporary replacement, Georgia Hale, Chaplin's co-star in THE GOLD RUSH. (****)