City Lights (1931)

2013 #10
Charles Chaplin | 83 mins | DVD | 1.33:1* | USA / silent (English) | U / G

City LightsThe first film I watched as part of my new-this-year What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? initiative is also the oldest, a silent movie (with a synchronised music & effects soundtrack) starring, written and directed by Charlie Chaplin.

Billed at the start of the titles as “A Comedy Romance in Pantomime”, the film concerns the tramp (Chaplin, obv.) falling in love with a blind girl (Virginia Cherrill) who stands to be evicted from her home, and also befriending a rich gentlemen (Harry Myers) prone to drink and forgetting the tramp when he’s sober. These relatively slight storylines are really used to string together a series of skits, which I suppose is Chaplin’s forte. These are intermittently very funny, even if some stuff has now dated, probably through copying and repetition by others. However, towards the end there’s a boxing sequence which is flat-out excellent; so good that the old UK DVD used it on the cover, even though it’s a complete aside in the context of the film. Elsewhere, Chaplin puts the synchronised soundtrack to good use, using sound effects for added humour.

Though the film is mostly comedic and the romantic plot is a little thin, Chaplin also manages to construct moments that are affectingly emotional. The most notable is the ending, which remains a striking example of subtle acting yielding huge rewards. It is, you are oft told if you read up on the film, a famous screen moment, though I guess fadingly so because (I must confess) it only rang a vague bell even after I’d seen it. A kiss from a roseMuch of the film’s emotional impact comes courtesy of Cherrill, who gives a suitably pretty and sweet performance. Chaplin wasn’t impressed with her as an actress and attempted re-casting (the film has a remarkably fraught production history), but I think it’s beneficial that never worked out. It’s always possible another actress could have been just as good, of course, but I can’t imagine any playing this role better.

Over 80 years since it was released, I think City Lights’ high place on some Great Movies lists is probably due more to it being Significant than plain enjoyable when viewed today — the kind of film that was great at the time and certainly has a place in history, but has perhaps been surpassed in some respects. Or maybe that’s just me being a young whippersnapper. Either way, greatness is never entirely superseded, and Chaplin’s most acclaimed film still has joys to impart.

4 out of 5

* The original aspect ratio is 1.20:1, but the old UK DVD (at least) is definitely fullscreen. ^

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