Thursday, 27 March 2014

City Lights (1931)

Country:  USA
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Screenplay: Charlie Chaplin
Starring:  Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Florence Lee, Harry Myers
Length: 87 minutes 

A homeless man falls in love with a blind girl selling flowers and goes through hell to help her pay rent before she is evicted. 

Opting to stay silent when sound films were already popular (Chaplin believed “talkies” were merely a fad), City Lights was an instant box office smash, earning over $5 million or more than three times what it cost to make. Albert Einstein was at the premiere. Chaplin was beloved of directors like Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, Federico Fellini and Woody Allen. His mother Hannah died during pre-production and the film was put on hold. Some have suggested that the film is partially autobiographical, with the flower girl representing Chaplin’s mother.

Chaplin's signature character, The Tramp, had already appeared in Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914) and served as the comical heart of dozens more films to follow. But he was more than the guy with the little moustache and cane: Chaplin was a Hollywood powerhouse for decades as actor, producer, distributor, part owner of United Artists, and if that weren't enough, composer for his 1931 classic with Arthur Johnston. 

City Lights is pure joy from start to finish. At a time when special effects and sound were radically transforming what audiences could expect from movies, Chaplin chose to make a simple film with (get this) strong characters, great pacing, unforgettable sight gags, choreographed sequences that didn't waste a single prop, and most importantly, a deeply touching human story. And at the center of it all, history’s most unsung hero and undisputed king of unlucky coincidences, The Tramp.  

Here, our boy's heart is stolen by a blind flower vender whose heart he tries to win in return, if only he could get away from the drunk Jekyll-and-Hyde millionaire who can’t decide whether or not the Trampster is his new best friend. As my dear wife will no doubt attest below, not everyone is a fan of silent films. But whereas some non-talkies are arguably diminished by a lack of sound, the dance-like pantomime comedy of City Lights thrives on it. Take the Cigar-at-the-Dance scene, the Suicide-Prevention-at-the-River scene, or the Boxing Jitterbug scene. Instant classics, all. 

But it’s the gorgeous story in the middle of everything that finally pulls your heart out and gives it a big, gooey, and, somehow, totally genuine hug. Easily my favourite film among the Hundred so far.
I don’t usually like slapstick comedy - i.e. can’t stand it. But the laughs came so fast and furiously, and Chaplin made me love him so completely, I simply couldn’t resist. And you're right, darling, I didn’t give a tinker's cuss that it was silent! 

Of course, it didn’t hurt that I likes me a good underdog story and loves me a good love story. And what’s with that ending? Totally took me off guard and had me weeping! City Lights is sweet, funny, honest stuff!

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