Monday, July 11, 2011

Stubs - City Lights

CITY LIGHTS (1931) Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Florence Lee and Harry Meyers. Directed by Charlie Chaplin. Screenplay by Charlie Chaplin. Music Composed by Charlie Chaplin. Produced by Charlie Chaplin (uncredited). Run Time 87 minutes, Black and White. U.S. Silent, Romantic Comedy


The first of the three silent films on this list and perhaps the best, if not one of the best films of all time. This was a silent film that came out after everyone else had turned to sound. But seeing as Chaplin was his own producer and distributor, through United Artists, he could do what he liked and apparently the rest of the world loved it, too, as this was one of his bigger commercial successes.


While Chaplin did make a few sound films or talkies, he is best remembered as a silent filmmaker and star. He is no doubt the best known of all the silent comedians and stars for that matter. While he joined forces with Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks in forming United Artists, he is really the only one of the three who’s films get regular viewing today. While Buster Keaton may have arguably made funnier films, Chaplin was a better filmmaker as this film shows.

Raised with his brother Sydney in poverty by a mentally challenged single mother, Chaplin rose to become the first great media star of the 20th century and perhaps the most recognizable man in the world. Chaplin came over to the U.S. on tour with a comedy troupe from England. His portrayal of a drunkard caught the eye of silent movie mogul Mack Sennett and the rest they say is history. Signed to a contract with Keystone, Chaplin developed his the little Tramp which went on to become one of the best loved characters ever to show on a silver screen. He managed to turn his popularity into power, moving quickly from starring in shorts, to directing them, to eventually having his own movie studio.

And Chaplin grew as an artist as well, moving from slapstick shorts to longer films and became perhaps one of the great directors of all time. Many of his movies, including this one, regularly land on lists of the greatest films ever made. THE GOLD RUSH (1925); THE CIRCUS (1928); MODERN TIMES (1936), THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940) are all features that stand the test of time and are testament to his genius. But none affected me the same way that CITY LIGHTS did.

CITY LIGHTS, as with most Chaplin films, centers around the antics of the Tramp (Chaplin) and while there are funny moments throughout, the Tramp is a little more serious this time around. He goes out of his way to help a young, blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill). When they first meet, the tramp buys flowers from her, but while waiting for his change, a man gets into a nearby car and drives away. Thinking that the Tramp has left, she keeps the change and the Tramp lets her.

When he finds out that there is an operation that could restore her eyesight, he decides to raise the money. First he takes a job as a street sweeper, but he gets fired when he returns late from lunch after seeing the girl. Then he tries his hand at throwing a prize fight, but when his co-conspirator can’t make the fight, the Tramp is trashed by a no-holds barred opponent. Finally, the Tramp turns to a millionaire (Harry Meyers) who, when drunk is carefree, fun-loving and generous. But when he sobers up kicks the Tramp to the curb.

On his last outing with the drunken millionaire, the Tramp asks and receives the $1000 that would be necessary for the girl’s operation. But as luck would have it, the millionaire is robbed by two men when he is drunk. Sober, he points the finger at the Tramp. The Tramp eludes police just long enough to deliver the money. Then he is arrested and sent to jail.

Returning years later, an even more disheveled Tramp goes to the spot where the blind girl had sold her flowers, but she is not there. With her sight restored, she has opened a flower shop with her grandmother (Florence Lee). After being tormented by newsboys, the Tramp finds himself staring through the shop window at the girl. When she sees that the flower on his lapel is falling apart, she offers him a new one and a coin. While at first he turns to leave, he comes back to take the flower. When she reaches for his hand to give him the coin, and feels him, she realizes that he is her benefactor. "You?" she says, and he nods, asking, "You can see now?" She replies, "Yes, I can see now" and holds his hand to her heart. The film closes on Chaplin smiling back at her.

There shouldn’t be a dry eye in the house at this point. I was getting teary eyed just writing about it.

Now for the personal bit and why this film is on my top ten. This is one film that when I saw it for the first time really moved me. I saw this for the first time in college. I had decided a few years before that I liked Chaplin and wanted to see as many of his films as I could. I remember driving up to school to see a screening. The film really touched me and it was all I could think about on the way home. The next morning when I went to get into my car, I realized I had driven to school, but walked home. I had never done that before or since.

This film is one of the best examples of how the language of silent film had grown and how the director had grown as well. Chaplin had moved from strictly slapstick to slapstick with pathos. As one of the last silent films made in Hollywood, this is also one of the best. Chaplin touches the audience the way only a great director can. CITY LIGHTS will never dim.

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