Happy second day of Shavuot to all those who celebrate!
Welcome to City Lights week, a celebration of the 85th anniversary of the film many consider Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin’s masterpiece, and one of the all-time greatest films. This is one of the best-known silent films, even among those who aren’t connoisseurs of the lost artform. Even people who don’t personally care for Chaplin’s style often laud this film as one of the best. And that ending scene is one of the most powerful and unforgettable in film history. I’m far from the only person who gets choked up just thinking about it!
Released 30 January 1931, City Lights was a big risk for Chaplin. Though he’d begun writing and filming in 1928, he refused to go along with the rush towards talkies. Chaplin firmly believed talkies were just a passing fad, and that silence would once again emerge triumphant. He didn’t crack on this stance till The Great Dictator in 1940, and even that film uses sound rather selectively. Most importantly, he implicitly understood sound would kill his Tramp character.
The film opens with the unveiling of a new statue, on which the Tramp has fallen asleep. When he tries to extricate himself, comic mayhem ensues. It’s notable how the city officials actually do speak during this opening scene, but everything they say comes out as gibberish. In addition to this, the film also has a synchronised soundtrack.
The Tramp eventually gets away, and is bullied by a couple of newsboys (a profession which has become all but obsolete). He then meets a beautiful flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) and is persuaded into buying one flower. Though the Tramp doesn’t immediately realise it, the Flower Girl is blind. As she’s about to give the Tramp his change, another man gets into a fancy automobile and drives away, causing her to believe the Tramp is a millionaire.
That night by the waterfront, the Tramp crosses paths with a drunken millionaire (Harry Myers) trying to off himself. The Tramp wages a determined battle to save the would-be suicide, and convinces him his place is in the land of the living. The Millionaire then takes the Tramp back to his mansion, dresses him in much nicer clothes, and takes him out for a night of debauchery on the town.
Next morning, they run across the Flower Girl in the same spot where the Tramp met her. To impress her, the Tramp asks the Millionaire for some money, which he uses to buy all of the flowers and keep up the charade. He also drives her home in the Millionaire’s Rolls-Royce. The Flower Girl then tells her grandmother about her new rich friend.
When the Tramp next visits the Flower Girl, he sees a doctor ministering to her, and decides to get a job as a street-sweeper to earn money for her. Presently, the grandmother gets a notice threatening eviction if back rent isn’t paid by the next day.
On his lunch break, the Tramp comes back and sees a newspaper story about a Viennese doctor who can cure blindness. He then finds the eviction notice, and is compelled into reading it to the Flower Girl. He assures her he’ll provide the money, but is fired when he returns to work late. Undeterred, he accepts an offer to stage a fake boxing match and split the $50 prize money.
I won’t spoil anything which happens after this, but I will say there are lots of unexpected, dramatic, emotional twists and turns. This is one of the most essential films to see when starting to build your list of silents seen, though it’s one of those films which gets better with each new viewing and might not be fully appreciated or understood the first time around.
And damn, that final scene most amply deserves its reputation as one of the greatest ever! I’d be surprised if anyone could watch it and not become emotional.