Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Charlie Chaplin|
|Produced by||Charlie Chaplin (uncredited)|
|Written by||Charlie Chaplin|
|Music by||Arthur Johnston and Alfred Newman|
Mark Marklatt (uncredited)
|Editing by||Charlie Chaplin (uncredited)|
|Distributed by||United Artists|
|Running time||87 minutes|
City Lights is a 1931 American romantic comedy film written by, directed by, and starring Charlie Chaplin. The story follows the misadventures of Chaplin's Tramp as he falls in love with a blind girl (Virginia Cherrill) and develops a friendship with a millionaire (Harry Myers). Although sound films were on the rise when Chaplin started developing the script in 1928, the director decided to continue working with silent productions. Filming started on December 1928, and ended in 1930. City Lights was immediately popular upon release, with positive reviews and box office receipts of $5 million. Today, it is thought of as not only one of the highest accomplishments of Chaplin's prolific career, but as one of the greatest films ever made. Although classified as a comedy, City Lights has an ending widely regarded as one of the greatest, and most moving in cinema history.
The officials of a city are dedicating a new statue, but when it is unveiled, Chaplin's Tramp is discovered sleeping on it. He is chased off by the crowd. Destitute and homeless he wanders the streets, getting tormented by two newsboys. He happens upon a blind Flower Girl (Virginia Cherrill), and buys a flower. Just when she is about to give him his change, a man gets into a nearby car and drives away, making her think the Tramp has driven off. The Tramp doesn't correct her and slinks away. The Flower Girl returns home to her simple life with her grandmother (Florence Lee).
That evening, the Tramp runs into a drunken millionaire (Harry Myers) who is trying to commit suicide. The Tramp convinces him to live, whereupon the millionaire showers him with gifts. They return to the millionaire's mansion, where the Tramp gets a change of clothes, and then go out on the town, where the Tramp inadvertently causes much havoc. The next morning, they return to the mansion. The Flower Girl walks by, so the Tramp asks the millionaire for money and then buys all her flowers and drives her home in the millionaire's Rolls-Royce. She tells her grandmother about her wealthy suitor. When the Tramp returns to the mansion, the millionaire has sobered up and rudely dismisses him. But later that day, he meets the Tramp again while intoxicated, and invites him back for a wild party. The next morning, having sobered up again and planning to leave for a cruise, the millionaire once more tosses out the Tramp.
Returning to the Flower Girl's apartment, the Tramp spies her being attended by a doctor. He decides to take a job to earn money for her, and becomes a street-sweeper, managing to annoy his new coworker. Meanwhile, the grandmother receives a notice that she and the Flower Girl will be evicted if they cannot pay their back rent, but hides it and goes out to beg. The Tramp visits the Flower Girl on his lunch break, and sees an ad for an operation that cures blindness. He then finds the notice and promises the Girl he will pay it. But he returns to work late and is fired. Dejected, he passes a boxing venue, where a fighter convinces him to spar with him, throw the fight, and they'll split the prize money. But the fighter turns out to be a fugitive from justice and flees, leaving the Tramp to fight a no-nonsense replacement. Despite a valiant effort, the Tramp is thrashed. He meets the drunken millionaire again, who takes him to the mansion and gives him $1000 for the Girl. But two burglars sneak in and clobber the millionaire, and when he comes to, he accuses the Tramp of stealing. The Tramp narrowly escapes the police, delivers the money to the Girl, and promises to return, but he is picked up by the police and thrown in jail.
Several months later, the Little Tramp wanders the streets again, far more ragged than we have seen him before. Searching for the girl, he returns to her original street corner, but she is not there. With her sight restored, the girl has opened up a flower shop with her grandmother. When a rich man comes into the shop, the girl wonders if he is her mysterious benefactor. The Tramp, in ragged clothes and tormented by the same newsboys, suddenly finds himself staring at her through the window. She jokes to her colleague that she has "made a conquest". Seeing a flower that he has retrieved from the gutter falling apart in his hand, the girl kindly offers him a fresh flower from her shop, and a coin. The Tramp begins to leave, then reaches for the flower. The girl takes hold of his hand to place the coin in it and, recognizing the touch of his hand, she realizes who he is. "You?" she says, and he nods, asking, "You can see now?" She replies, "Yes, I can see now," and holds his hand to her heart. The Little Tramp smiles shyly at the girl, clutching the flower to his face, his eyes full of love and hope, as the film ends.
- Charlie Chaplin as A Tramp;
- Virginia Cherrill as A Blind Girl;
- Florence Lee as The Blind Girl's Grandmother;
- Harry Myers as An Eccentric Millionaire;
- Al Ernest Garcia as His Butler (as James);
- Hank Mann as A Prizefighter;
- Robert Parrish as Newsboy;
- Henry Bergman as Mayor and Man in Basement;
- Albert Austin as Street Sweeper;
- Jean Harlow Uncredited Extra.
Chaplin's feature The Circus, released in 1928, was his last film before the motion picture industry embraced sound recording and brought the silent movie era to a close. As his own producer and distributor (part owner of United Artists), Chaplin could still conceive City Lights as a silent film. Technically the film was a crossover, as its soundtrack had synchronized music, sound effects, and some unintelligible sounds that copied speech pattern films. The dialogue was presented on intertitles. Chaplin was first contacted by inventor Eugene Augustin Lauste in 1918 about making a sound film, but never ended up meeting with Lauste. Chaplin was dismissive about "talkies" and told a reporter that he'd "give the talkies three years, that's all." He was also concerned about how to adjust the Little Tramp to sound films.
In early 1928 Chaplin began writing the script with Harry Carr. After the success of The Circus, Chaplin had originally wanted to make a film about a circus clown who goes blind and has to conceal his handicap from his young daughter by pretending that his inability to see were pratfalls. It also included sequences where two millionaires pick up the Little Tramp from the city dump and show him a good time in expensive clubs, and then drop him back off at the dump. This film was intended to take place in Paris.
The plot of City Lights gradually grew from this initial concept. Chaplin first thought of the film's famous final scene where the newly cured blind girl sees the Little Tramp for the first time. Chaplin wrote a highly detailed description of the scene and considered it to be the center of the entire film. Chaplin officially began pre-production of the film in May 1928 and hired Austrian art director Henry Clive to design the sets that summer. Chaplin eventually cast Clive in the role of the millionaire. Although the film was originally set in Paris, the art direction is inspired by a mix of several cities. Robert Sherwood said that "it is a weird city, with confusing resemblances to London, Los Angeles, Naples, Paris, Tangiers and Council Bluffs. It is no city on earth and it is all cities."
On August 28, 1928 Chaplin's mother Hannah Chaplin died at the age of 63. Chaplin was distraught over his mother's death for several weeks and pre-production did not resume until mid-Fall 1928. Psychologist Stephen Weissman has hypothesized that City Lights is highly autobiographical, with the blind girl representing Chaplin's mother while the drunken millionaire represents Chaplin's father. Weissman also compared many of the film's sets with locations from Chaplin's real childhood such as the statue in the opening scene resembling St. Mark's Church on Kennington Park Road and Chaplin referring to the waterfront set as the Thames Embarkment.
Chaplin had interviewed several actresses to play the blind flower girl but could not find an actress that he liked. He met Virginia Cherrill by chance at a boxing match at the Hollywood American Legion Stadium and immediately asked her to make a screen test. She was the first actress to subtly and convincingly act blind on camera due to her near-sightedness and Cherrill signed a contract on November 1, 1928.
Filming for City Lights officially began on December 27, 1928, after Chaplin and Carr had worked on the script for almost an entire year. As a filmmaker, Chaplin was known for being a perfectionist; he was notable for doing many more "takes" than other directors at the time. Production began with the first scene at the flower stand where the Little Tramp first meets the Blind Flower Girl. The scene tooks weeks to shoot and Chaplin first began to have second thoughts about casting Cherrill. Years later Cherrill said "I never liked Charlie and he never liked me." In his autobiography, Chaplin took responsibility for his on-set tensions with Cherrill, blaming the stress of making the film for the conflict. Filming the scene continued until February 1929 and again for ten days in early April before Chaplin put the scene aside to be filmed at a later time. He then shot the film's opening scene of the Little Tramp waking up in a newly unveiled public statue. This scene involved up to 380 extras and was especially stressful for Chaplin to shoot. During this part of shooting, construction was being done at Chaplin Studios because the city of Los Angeles had decided to widen La Brea Avenue and Chaplin was forced to move several buildings away from the road.
Chaplin then shot the sequence where the Little Tramp first meets the millionaire and prevents him from committing suicide. During filming Henry Clive suddenly decided that he did not want to jump into the tank of cold water in the scene, causing Chaplin to storm off set and fire Clive. He was quickly replaced by Harry Myers, who Chaplin had known while under contract at Keystone Studios. Chaplin finished shooting the sequence on July 29, 1929 with exteriors at Pasadena Bridge. Chaplin then shot a sequence that was eventually cut from the film involving the Little Tramp attempting to retrieve a stick that was stuck in a wall. The scene included a young Charles Lederer and Chaplin later praised the scene but insisted that it needed to be cut. Chaplin then continued filming the scenes with the millionaire until September 29, 1929.
In November Chaplin began working with Cherrill again in some of the Flower Girl's less dramatic scenes. While waiting for her scenes for several months, Cherrill had become bored and openly complained to Chaplin. During the filming of one scene Cherrill asked Chaplin if she could leave early so that she could go to a hair appointment. Chaplin fired Virginia Cherrill and replaced her with Georgia Hale, Chaplin's co-star in The Gold Rush. However Hale's screen tests proved that she was unsuitable for the role. Chaplin also briefly considered sixteen-year-old actress Violet Krauth, but was talked out of this idea by his collaborators. Chaplin finally re-hired Cherrill to finish City Lights and Cherrill demanded and got a raise to $75 per week. Approximately seven minutes of test footage of Hale survives and is included on the DVD release; excerpts were first seen in the documentary Unknown Chaplin along with an unused opening sequence from the film.
Chaplin then cast Florence D. Lee as the Blind Girl's grandmother and shot scenes with Cherrill and Dee for five weeks. In late 1929 Chaplin re-shot the first Flower Shop scene with Cherrill. This time the scene was completed in six days and Chaplin was happy with Cherrill's performance. Chaplin had been shooting the film for a year and was only a little more than half way finished. From March to April 1930 Chaplin shot the scenes inside of the millionaire's house at the Town House on Wilshire Boulevard. He hired Joe Van Meter and Albert Austin, whom he had known since his days working for Fred Karno as the burglars. In the late spring of 1930 Chaplin shot the last major comedy sequence in the film: the boxing match. Chaplin hired Keystone actor Hank Mann to play the Tramp's opponent. The scene required 100 extras and Chaplin took fours days to rehearse and six days to shoot the scene. In July and August Chaplin finished up six weeks of smaller scenes for the film, including the two scenes of the Tramp being harassed by newsboys, one of which was played by a young Robert Parrish.
In September 1930 Chaplin finished shooting the film with the final scene, which took six days to shoot. Chaplin said that he was happy with Cherrill's performance in the scene and that she had eventually understood the role. When talking about his directing style on set, Chaplin stated that "everything I do is a dance. I think in terms of dance. I think more so in City Lights."
From October to December 1930 Chaplin edited the film and created the title cards. When Chaplin completed the film, silent films had become generally unpopular. But City Lights was one of the great financial and artistic successes of Chaplin's career, and it was his personal favorite of his films. Especially fond of the final scene, he said, "[I]n City Lights just the last scene ... I’m not acting .... Almost apologetic, standing outside myself and looking ... It’s a beautiful scene, beautiful, and because it isn’t over-acted."
The film score of City Lights was composed in six weeks with Arthur Johnston and included over one hundred musical cues, several themes from popular melodies, and other melodies composed by Chaplin and Johnston. The score was recorded in five days with Musical Arranger Alfred Newman. Chaplin told a reporter that during the music's composition, "I really didn't write it down. I la-laed and Arthur Johnson wrote it down, and I wish you would give him credit because he did a very good job. It is all simple music, you know, in keeping with my character."
The main theme used as a leitmotif for the blind flower girl is the song La Violetera (Who’ll buy my Violets) from Spanish composer José Padilla. Chaplin unsuccessfully tried to secure the original song performer Raquel Meller in the lead role, but used her song anyway as a major theme. Chaplin lost a lawsuit to Padilla (which took place in Paris, where Padilla lived) for not crediting him. Some modern editions released for video include a new recording by Carl Davis.
As in other Chaplin movies, each scene has an element of slapstick in it, using the comic scenes in a symbolic way. The opening scene uses funny sounds to depict the important mayor and his wife who are smiling and talking emphatically before the crowd. The revelation of the monument before the acting crowd is actually the revelation of the tramp, the well-known Charlie Chaplin, before the movie-going crowd. Slapstick is also used to show how the Tramp unknowingly insults and sometimes openly attacks various institutions and people, from mocking the mayor and police to bashing the stuck-up butler or the snoopy neighbor.
The Tramp in every scene barely escapes disaster of which he is completely unaware. Via the comic scenes, the Tramp is shown to be short, dirty and sloppy. His life is contrasted with good food, clean clothing, a large house, and comfortable and clean chairs, couches and beds. He is shown to be fearful of looking at or even dreaming of a better life. In some encounters with the blind girl, she unknowingly manages to bash the Tramp, throwing water in his face, using his underclothes to thread her yarn ball, etc. He also shows the hardships and many times unbearable conditions of the lower class via comedy, when the Tramp chooses to sweep the streets or sets himself up in the boxing ring. In the final scene, he happens to look into the flower store, which can be considered a clear analogy to part of the opening scene where he peers at the nude figurine in the window of a dress shop.
A major theme in City Lights is the contrast of material and spiritual wealth, translating life in the Great Depression. The millionaire is rich, but shallow and carefree, spending his money to escape from the real world and his empty lifestyle through heavy drinking. The blind girl is poor while rich in soul, with any income representing hope to overcome the struggles in her life. When the Tramp befriends the millionaire and gains some luxuries, he still does not forget his earlier life, as represented in the scene where the Tramp chases after a discarded cigarette in a sportscar.
Reception and Legacy 
After an unsuccessful preview at the Tower theater in Los Angeles, City Lights premiered on January 30, 1931 at the Los Angeles Theater on Broadway in downtown LA. Albert Einstein and his wife were the guests of honor and the film received a standing ovation. It next premiered at the George M. Cohan Theater in New York, and at the Dominion in London in February.
Chaplin was nervous about reception of the film because by this time, silent films were becoming obsolete; Hollywood switched to sound films by the end of 1929. The film was enthusiastically received by Depression-era audiences, earning $5 million during its initial release, and became one of Chaplin's most financially successful and critically acclaimed works. A film critic for the Los Angeles Examiner said that "not since I reviewed the first Chaplin comedies way back in the two-reel days has Charlie given us such an orgy of laughs." The New York Times reviewer Mordaunt Hall considered it "a film worked out with admirable artistry". On the other hand, Alexander Bakshy of The Nation was highly critical of City Lights, objecting against the silent format and over-sentimentality and describing it as "Chaplin's feeblest".
The popularity of City Lights endured, with the film's re-release in 1950 again having positive reception by audiences and critics. In 1949, the critic James Agee wrote in Life magazine, that the final scene was the "greatest single piece of acting ever committed to celluloid." Richard Meryman called the final scene one of the greatest moments in film history. Charles Silver, Curator of Film at the Museum of Modern Art, states that the film is so highly regarded because it brought forth a new level of lyrical romanticism that did not appear in Chaplin's earlier works. He adds that like all romanticism, it is based in the denial of the real world around it. When the film premiered, Chaplin was much older, he was in the midst of another round of legal battles with former spouse Lita Grey and the economic and political climate of the world had changed. Chaplin uses The Girl's blindness to remind The Tramp of precarious nature of Romanticism in the real world as she unknowingly assaults him multiple times. Film.com critic Eric D. Snider says that by 1931, most Hollywood filmmakers either embraced talking pictures, resigned themselves to their inevitability or just gave up making movies, yet Chaplin held firm with his vision in this project. He also notes that few in Hollywood had the clout to make a silent film at that late date, let alone do it well. One reason was that Chaplin knew The Tramp could not be adapted to talking movies and still work.
Several well-known directors have praised City Lights. Orson Welles said it was his favorite film. In a 1963 interview in the American magazine Cinema, Stanley Kubrick rated City Lights as fifth among his top ten films. In 1972, the renowned Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky placed City Lights as fifth among this top ten and said of Chaplin, "He is the only person to have gone down into cinematic history without any shadow of a doubt. The films he left behind can never grow old." George Bernard Shaw called Chaplin "the only genius to come out of the movie industry". Celebrated Italian director Federico Fellini often praised this film and his Nights of Cabiria refers to it. In the 2003 documentary Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin, Woody Allen said it was Chaplin's best picture. Allen is said to have based the final scene of his 1979 film Manhattan on the final scene of City Lights. The film has also been studied and written about by American and international film critics and scholars. For example, French experimental musician and film critic Michel Chion has written an analysis of City Lights, published as Les Lumières de la ville. Slavoj Žižek used the film as a primary example in his essay, "Why Does a Letter Always Arrive at Its Destination?". City Lights is considered one of the greatest films ever made.
In 1952, Sight and Sound magazine issued the results of its first poll for "The Best Films of All Time" and City Lights was voted #2, after Vittorio DeSica's Bicycle Thieves. In 2002, City Lights ranked 45th on the critics' list. That same year, directors were polled separately and ranked the film as 19th overall. In 1992, the Library of Congress selected City Lights for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." In 1997, the American Film Institute's tenth anniversary edition of 100 Years... 100 Movies ranked City Lights as the eleventh greatest American film of all time, an improvement over the 76th position on the original list. AFI also chose the film as the best romantic comedy of American cinema in 2008's "10 Top 10". The Tramp was number 38 on AFI's list of the 50 Best Heroes, and the film ranked at 38th among the funniest films, 10th among the greatest love stories, and 33rd on the most inspiring films.
See also 
- "Chaplin as a composer". CharlieChaplin.com.
- Kerr, Walter. The Silent Clowns, New York: DaCapo Press, 1990 ISBN 0-306-80387-9
- Robinson, David. Chaplin: His Life and Art. New York: McGraw-Hill Books Company. 1985. ISBN 0-07-053181-1. p. 387.
- Robinson. p. 389.
- Robinson. p. 391.
- Robinson. p. 393.
- Robinson. p. 295.
- Robinson. pp. 396-297.
- Weissman, Stephen. Chaplin: A Life. New York: Arcade Publishing. 2008. ISBN 978-1-55970-892-0. pp. 71-74.
- Weissman. p. 64.
- Weissman. p. 65.
- Weissman. p. 67.
- Robinson. p. 398.
- David Robinson (2004). "Filming City Lights". CharlieChaplin.com. Retrieved 2011-05-12.
- Robinson. p. 399.
- Robinson. p. 400.
- Robinson. p. 401.
- Robinson. p. 402.
- Robinson. pp. 402-403.
- Robinson. p. 403.
- Robinson. p. 404.
- Robinson. p. 405.
- Robinson. p. 406.
- Robinson. p. 407.
- Robinson. p. 408.
- Robinson. p. 409.
- Robinson. p. 410.
- Robinson. p. 412.
- Robinson. p. 413.
- Flower Girl scene at Youtube
- La violetera by the original performer Raquel Meller at Youtube
- "Portrait of Charlie Chaplin's Favourite for Sale at Bonhams". Art Daily. Retrieved 22 November 2010.
- Luces de la ciudad (in Spanish), ABC (Madrid) 27/07/1962 p.30. "Charlie Chaplin, the great "Charlot", who had heard Rachel sing "La violetera," said our artist that he would take the melody for one of his movies and would like her to be his companion in the performance of the story. Rachel did not make the film, despite the request and friendship which joined her with Chaplin".
- "José Padilla". El Poder de la Palabra. (in Spanish)
- "Biografía de José Padilla Sánchez". marielilasagabaster.net. (in Spanish) From the original verdict: "The repeated use of La violetera makes it a leitmotif of the film. Its use gives the film a harmony that enriches it."
- Roger Ebert. "City Lights (1931)". Chicago Sun-Times.
- Flom, Eric L. (1997). Chaplin in the Sound Era: An Analysis of the Seven Talkies. McFarland. p. 71. ISBN 9780786403257.
- Robinson. p. 414.
- Robinson. p. 415.
- Robinson. p. 426.
- Carl Schroeder (January 2008). "Program Note". Minnesota Orchestra. Retrieved 2011-05-13.
- Hall, Mordaunt (February 7, 1931). "Movie Review - City Lights - CHAPLIN HILARIOUS IN HIS 'CITY LIGHTS'; Tramp's Antics in Non-Dialogue Film Bring Roars of Laughter at Cohan Theatre.TAKES FLING AT "TALKIES"Pathos Is Mingled With Mirth in a Production of Admirable Artistry.". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-09-08.
- Flom, pp. 73-4
- Flom, p.194
- Eric D. Snider (15 February 2010). "What's the Big Deal: City Lights". Film.com. Seattlepi.com. Retrieved 2011-05-11.
- Charles Silver (31 August 2010). "Charles Chaplin’s City Lights". The Museum of Modern Art. Retrieved 2011-05-11.
- Michel Ciment (1982). "Kubrick" Biographical Notes". VisualMemory.com. Retrieved 2011-05-11.
- Tom Lasica (March 1993). "Tarkovsky's Choice". Sight & Sound (British Film Institute) 3 (3). Retrieved 2011-05-11.
- Thomas Gladysz (24 November 2010). "Two New Releases Show Genius of Charlie Chaplin". Huffington Post. Retrieved 2011-05-10.
- Chion, Michel (1994). Les lumières de la ville, Charles Chaplin. Nathan. ISBN 2091886238.
- Zizek, Slavoj (2001). Enjoy Your Symptom! Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out. Taylor & Francis. pp. 1–9. ISBN 0415928125.
- "The Sight & Sound Top Ten Poll: 1952 Critics' Poll". British Film Institute. 5 September 2006. Retrieved 2011-05-11.
- "The Sight & Sound Top Ten Poll 2002: The rest of the critics' list". British Film Institute. 5 September 2006. Retrieved 2011-05-11.
- "The Sight & Sound Top Ten Poll 2002: The rest of the directors' list". British Film Institute. 5 September 2006. Retrieved 2011-05-11.
- National Film Registry, National Film Preservation Board, Library of Congress; Retrieved April 16, 2012
- "AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition)". American Film Institute. Retrieved 2010-08-17.
- "AFI's Top 10 Romantic Comedies". American Film Institute. 17 June 2008. Retrieved 2008-06-18.
- "AFI's 100 Years... 100 Heroes & Villains". American Film Institute. Retrieved 2010-08-17.
- "AFI's 100 YEARS...100 LAUGHS". American Film Institute. Retrieved 2008-08-18.
- "AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions". American Film Institute. Archived from the original on 2011-07-16. Retrieved January 19, 2010.
- "AFI 100 Cheers". June 14, 2006. Retrieved 2012-10-19.
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