A film that has been beloved by many Chaplin fans, “City Lights” has been a long awaited title that fans have hoped to see release by the Criterion Collection, even before Criterion had the rights to release Chaplin titles.
It was also a title that was difficult to obtain unless you wanted to pay a lot for the Warner Brothers DVD that was released back in 2004 or purchased the box set “The Chaplin Collection”.
But “City Lights” is a film that one can easily look as a true Chaplin masterpiece. He was not dogged by any scandal or controversy, he was one of the most powerful men in America and he was a man that could call the shots, push for perfection and no longer how many takes it would take to shoot a certain scene, there was no pressure of how much film was used, this was Chaplin’s film with his own creative voice.
Which is very important because he was a man who was best known for his comedy playing the character the Tramp in many silent films and while many people were saying goodbye to silents, Charles Chaplin was not ready to say goodbye. In fact, he would dare all naysayers that silent films were dead with the release of “City Lights”.
Focusing on the characters and a love story about a homeless, poor Tramp who has fallen for the beautiful, blind flower girl. Hearing her woes and the fact that her blindness has not made her judge him, he wants to save her from whichever troubles that ail her. Eviction from her apartment and to cure her blindness by paying for an operation. But where can the poor Tramp obtain that much money and what lengths would he go to help her? That is the journey that people will be captivated throughout one’s viewing of “City Lights”.
Viewers are one again captivated by the Tramp and Chaplin’s physical comedy and as always with a Chaplin film, one can easily fall for the leading actress, in this case, the beautiful Virginia Cherrill (who would one day marry and divorce actor Cary Grant). While the chemistry looked great on film, the truth as the two had a strained relationship. Chaplin the perfectionist (one scene with the Tramp and the flower girl took over 350 retakes) and Cherrill, who was fired for leaving the set for a hairdressing appointment, yet from the advice of actress Marion Davies, returned to the film by holding out for more money.
The other important chemistry in the film revolves around the drunk millionaire played by Harry Myers. When drunk, the millionaire and the tramp are the best of friends. When sober, he doesn’t remember his friendship with the tramp nor does he want someone poor anywhere near him. But these two have to be well-synced in order for the comedy to work.
One scene shows the millionaire pouring more alcohol into the glass of the tramp but in reality, he is pouring it into the front of the tramp’s trousers. These small jokes manage to hold up well after all these years. But for silent film fans, you can’t help but praise Chaplin for casting the silent film star in “City Lights”.
Like many silent film stars who lost their career due to the talkies, the actor had struggled after the end of the silent film era, but before the final nail in the coffin, he was able to become part of this film before his death of pneumonia seven years later.
And as Chaplin was a perfectionist when it came to how everything came together on screen, Chaplin was also a perfectionist when it came to the music for the film. Aside from the directorial, writing, producing, editing, acting (and sometimes acting out the various roles for the actors to get what he wanted on screen), he also wrote the music as well. Once again, showing how diverse his talents was and how perfection came to play in all areas of the film that he was responsible for.
But alas, the film that cost over a million dollars to make would go on to make five million in the box office. And it was once again vindication that a silent film could still be loved by viewers and that the Little Tramp has not lost favor to the talkies. In fact, the film was so loved that Albert Einstein stood up to applaud the film and was seen wiping his eyes during the final scene.
Overall, “City Lights” is a Chaplin masterpiece and definitely one of the must-see films that one should experience in their lifetime.