City Lights is also notable for the changing landscape in which it was produced. 1931 was an interesting time for both cinema and America as a nation. The Great Depression was dawning and while City Lights has a little fun surrounding the subject of money, as do most of Chaplin’s films, it is a humour that develops from a more innocent source. Of course, the little tramp is poor, as skint as ever, but at times he is lavished with fineries by his inebriated benefactor, only to be thrown back on the street the next morning. It was also a time when the “talkies” were beginning to get made in Hollywood, albeit rather poorly initially. Resisting their call (for now), Chaplin uses sound sparingly throughout his film, preferring to focus on the visual performance he has become famous for.
It is in that performance that some of the best scenes in City Lights emerge. The prize fighting sequence demonstrates extraordinary footwork from Chaplin, being both incredibly dexterous and beautifully balletic. A more simple scene is one in which he is a manure sweeper, following behind horses while keeping a wary eye on a passing elephant. Simple as always, but both are at the same time poignant and hilarious.
City Lights is also possibly Charlie Chaplin’s most sentimental film. There is usually a love interest, but here it is a more simple attraction. Virginia Cherrill’s Blind Girl is as innocent as the tramp, falling in love without the ability to see her paramour and yet still retaining that affection when she miraculously regains sight later.
It would be more difficult to find a Chaplin film that wasn’t deserving of high praise than one which is. These are films that hark back to a bygone era of Hollywood, when the antics of a tramp could sustain a film and retain an audience’s attention for a full feature’s running time. If judgement is necessary, The Gold Rush remains Chaplin’s seminal work, but as a collection of some of cinema’s most famous scenes City Lights is necessary viewing.
One Chaplin film will never be enough.
CITY LIGHTS / CERT: U / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: CHARLIE CHAPLIN / STARRING: CHARLIE CHAPLIN, VIRGINIA CHERRILL, FLORENCE LEE, HARRY MYERS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW