Though City Lights had its U.S. première on 30 January 1931, Chaplin decided to have a secret preview at L.A.’s Tower Theatre two weeks earlier. It only drew a small crowd, who weren’t too enthused about the film. However, it went over much better at the Los Angeles Theater at the gala première. Albert Einstein and his wife Elsa were the guests of honour. The film earned a standing ovation that night.
The second theatre it opened at was the George M. Cohan Theater in New York. Chaplin was very involved with this opening, and spent the day doing interviews. He also dropped $60,ooo on advertising, since he felt United Artists hadn’t done a good enough job. Chaplin insisted on taking half of the gross revenue, and set higher ticket prices in the belief audiences would care more about the film itself instead of the fact that it was silent.
In spite of the very legitimate worry that a silent film might not do so well in a sea of talkies, he need not have worried. Audiences adored the film, and it earned two million dollars. As a result of the film’s success, Chaplin embarked upon a 16-date international tour in February and March 1932. His first date was at London’s Dominion Theatre on 27 February, where the film had its British première. The film went on to earn five million more dollars.
The reviews were overwhelmingly positive, proving a silent film could still be very successful. It stood on its own merits, instead of being yet another clunky early talkie. While there are definitely more than a few great films from the first few years of the sound era, many early talkies do have a rather clunky, stilted, dated feel. I’ll discuss this more during next year’s planned series on The Jazz Singer at 90.
The film continued to be successful when it was re-released in 1950. Just as in 1931, many critics lauded it as one of Chaplin’s all-time best, or his greatest altogether. Over all these decades, it’s remained popular and highly-praised by critics, film scholars, actors, directors, producers, and laypeople. It’s also been used as inspiration for parts of other films, books, essays, and stories.
City Lights has ranked on a number of those incessant “best-of” and “greatest films ever” lists. That’s pretty impressive, given how silent films and actors are almost always frozen out and ignored on these lists.
Though Chaplin most wanted to be remembered for The Gold Rush, he held City Lights as his own personal favourite. It wasn’t his last stand against talking pictures either, as his next film, Modern Times (1936), was also a silent (albeit more of a hybrid). Next week I’ll be discussing that film on its 80th anniversary.