Film Review: City Lights – 8/10

‘Tomorrow the birds will sing…’

I’m coming to the end of Charlie Chaplin’s run of true classics. Having had the privilege of watching The Gold Rush, Modern Times, The Great Dictator and now City Lights, I only have The Kid from his golden era still to enjoy. What a ride…

In possibly his sweetest movie yet, the Tramp (Chaplin) sets his sights on a sightless flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) who he falls instantly in love with. After persuading an erratic and drunken millionaire (Harry Myers) not to end his life, Chaplin is bankrolled by the millionaire in his attempts to woo the flower girl. It’s that simple. And that’s as simple as it needs to be.

As ever, with all of Chaplin’s films, his characters are treated with love and respect by the Little Tramp. If the thought of a blind character prominently featuring in a film released in 1931 makes you wince, do not fear, the flower girl’s disability is never played for laughs, or rather, only for laughs at the expense of the Tramp. From the opening scene, in which a huge statue is unveiled before a large crowd, only for the unveiling to be overshadowed by the fact that the Tramp is asleep in the cradling arms of the statue itself, right through to the sentimental conclusion, City Lights is a joy. And yes, this is probably Chaplin’s most outright sentimental film, but it’s also visually stunning and gorgeously choreographed. The boxing scene in the third act is rightly lauded as an all time classic of the silent era, but witness Chaplin’s deft touch when admiring a shop window while a trapdoor ominously opens and closes behind him. Or even the pathos which ensures that the long sequence in which a man tries to kill himself is handled with grace and care whilst still remaining hilarious. This is Chaplin’s great skill, and it is perhaps never more evident than it is in City Lights.

It may not have the incredible special effects of Modern Times, it may not have the ground breaking cinematography and use of mise-en-scene that The Gold Rush boasts, and it’s certainly not as prescient as The Great Dictator, but City Lights is Chaplin in excelsis. The perfect representation of the Little Tramp character and his message. A great starting point for anyone interested in the work of Charles Spencer Chaplin.