Director: Charles Chaplin
Production: Charles Chaplin Studio; black and white, 35mm, synchronized music and sound effects; running time: 86 minutes; length: 2380 meters. Released 6 January 1931 in New York City by United Artists Corp.; re-released 8 April 1950. Filmed 1930 in Hollywood.
Producer, editor: Charles Chaplin; screenplay: Charles Chaplin; assistant directors: Harry Crocker, Henry Bergman and Albert Austin; photography: Rollie Totheroh, Gordon Pollack and Mark Markatt; art director: Charles D. Hall; music composer: Charles Chaplin; arranger: Arthur Johnston; conductor: Alfred Newman.
Cast: Charles Chaplin (Little Tramp); Virginia Cherrill (Flower Girl); Florence Lee (Grandmother); Harry Myers (Eccentric Millionaire); Allan Garcia (Valet); Hank Mann (Boxer); Eddie Baker (Referee); Henry Bergman (Doorman); Albert Austin (Swindler); Stanhope Wheatcroft (Distinguished man at café); John Rand (Another tramp); James Donnelly (Foreman); Robert Parrish (Newspaper boy); Jean Harlow (Nightclub girl); Stanley Sandford (Elevator boy).
von Ulm, Gerith, Charlie Chaplin: King of Tragedy, Idaho, 1940.
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* * *
Early in 1931 an extraordinary event took place in New York City at the George M. Cohan Theatre. Though the talking picture had been firmly established, a new silent film premiered at the Cohan that became the talk of the town—Charles Chaplin's City Lights, in which he starred as the beloved Little Tramp. He was also the producer, the director, the author and scenarist, the editor, and had written the music which accompanied it. Chaplin was the solitary hold-out against the talking film, and City Lights was successful because it was a nine-reel comedy which revelled in its silence.
Though it had a sound track and musical accompaniment, it was, first and foremost, a tribute to the pantomimic art. Audiences loved it, and critics named it Chaplin's finest accomplishment, the perfect combination of hilarious comedy and pure pathos. One critic, Rose Pelwick, of the New York Evening Journal, remarked: "City Lights has no dialogue. And it's just as well, because if the picture had words, the laughs and applause of last evening's audience would have drowned them out."
In the first year of the Academy Awards, 1927–28, Chaplin had been nominated as Best Actor for The Circus; he was also nominated for Comedy Direction (a category which was discontinued after the first year of the Academy's existence); and a special statuette was awarded him "for versatility and genius in writing, acting, directing, and producing The Circus." Now two years later, the Academy ignored City Lights, although critics everywhere acknowledged that it might very well be the best of all Chaplin's films.
City Lights had an uncomfortable genesis. Chaplin had started shooting it in 1928 as a silent film; when it became obvious that talking pictures were neither a fad nor a fancy, he closed down production temporarily. When he decided to continue with it as a silent, everybody cautioned him that he was fighting a losing battle. He told Sam Goldwyn: "I've spent every penny I possess on City Lights. If it's a failure, I believe it will strike a deeper blow than anything else that has ever happened to me in this life."
During its production the stock market crashed, and Chaplin's situation became even more precarious, but he persisted in his distaste for talking pictures, confiding in an interview with Gladys Hall in Motion Picture Magazine (May, 1929): "They are spoiling the oldest art in the world—the art of pantomime. They are ruining the great beauty of silence. They are defeating the meaning of the screen, the appeal that has created the star system, the fan system, the vast popularity of the whole—the appeal of beauty. It's beauty that matters in pictures—nothing else."
In 1931, when City Lights was internationally premiered, Chaplin's world was younger, more innocent, ready to laugh, willing to weep, and they did both, totally succumbing to this romance of the devotion of the Little Tramp to a beautiful blind girl, charmingly played by a young divorcée, Virginia Cherrill.
The plot line is very simple. The picture opens with an introductory gag, showing a group of pompous dignitaries who have assembled for the dedication of an ugly civic statue. When it is unveiled, the Little Tramp is discovered sleeping blissfully in the lap of the central figure. He is chased away, but is attracted by the beauty of a young girl selling flowers from her sidewalk stand. He spends his last coin for a flower for his buttonhole, and only then realizes that the girl is blind.
That night he saves the life of a millionaire (Harry Myers), who is drunk and determined to throw himself in the river. The Tramp persuades him to live, and they spend the rest of the night celebrating in a night club. The millionaire invites the Tramp home, and their limousine passes the blind girl, who is setting up her flower stand on the sidewalk. The Tramp gets money from the millionaire, and buys all the flowers in the girl's basket. The limousine and driver are also lent to the Tramp, so he can take the girl home after the millionaire has been dropped off at his mansion. She thinks the Tramp must be a very rich man, and he is content to let her believe that. But when the Tramp returns to his benefactor's residence, the now sober eccentric doesn't recognize him. This is a gag which is used several times effectively. Sober, the millionaire never knows the Tramp, but when he is drunk, he always greets him like an old buddy.
The Tramp now has a purpose in life: making enough money so the girl can have an operation and regain her sight. He gets a job as a street cleaner, and even enters the ring as a prizefighter, believing that the fight is fixed in his favor; but he is in error and ends up unconscious.
He meets the millionaire again, who is happily drunk and willing to give the Tramp money for the girl's eye surgery. They go to the mansion, and as the Tramp is given the money, two thugs enter the room and try to steal it, but are vanquished when the police arrive. The millionaire, knocked unconscious briefly, is revived, but, sobered, does not recognize the Tramp, who thereupon grabs the cash, and runs away at once to the blind girl's flower stand. He puts the money in her hands, and runs away, but soon afterwards is arrested and jailed for robbery.
When he has served his term and is released, he discovers the girl working in a flower shop. She sees the Little Tramp outside, and overcome with pity, she gets some money from her cash register and goes outside to give it to him. As she puts the money in his hands, she recognizes the touch of his fingers, and realizes the truth at once. He has made everything possible for her. There follows an exchange of dialogue on inter-titles that provides for one of the most moving finales in all of Chaplin's films. "You?" she asks. He nods, and smiles shyly, and asks, "You can see now?" She nods as her smile widens, "Yes, I can see now." The scene fades out with the Little Tramp smiling radiantly.
Thornton Delehanty, reviewing City Lights for the New York Evening Post, remarked: "City Lights confirms the indestructibility of Chaplin's art, not only as an actor but as a director. And he has done it without making any concessions to dialogue: he remains the supreme pantomimist."