Directed By: Charles Chaplin
Starring: Virginia Cherrill, Florence Lee, Harry Myers
Trivia: Albert Einstein attended the L.A. premiere of this film
By 1931, sound movies were all the rage in Hollywood, and just about every film released that year was a talkie. Charlie Chaplin, arguably the finest screen comedian of the silent age, was one of the few filmmakers who dared to buck the trend, and in so doing, delivered a picture I consider to be his masterpiece. The funny, often touching story of a tramp who falls in love with a blind flower girl, City Lights is one of the greatest silent films ever made.
It all begins when the flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) mistakes the lowly tramp (Chaplin) for a millionaire. Smitten with her beauty, the Tramp goes along with the charade, promising to give her enough money to pay for an operation that will restore her eyesight. He does everything he can to raise the necessary funds, even going so far as to take part in a boxing match against a man twice his size (Hank Mann). When all else fails, the Tramp seeks out a millionaire (Harry Myers) whose life he once saved, asking for his help. In a drunken stupor, the millionaire gives the Tramp the money for the operation, but once sober, forgets that he’d done so, and accuses the Tramp of stealing from him. Facing jail time, the Tramp pays one last visit to the flower girl, realizing he may never see her again.
City Lights isn’t completely silent; Chaplin composed a synchronized musical score for the film, and even tossed in a few sound effects. But the movie contained no spoken dialogue whatsoever, which allowed the actor / director to do what he did best. A master of pantomime, he relied on his impressive physical skills time and again in City Lights, often to generate laughs. Among the film’s best scenes is the boxing match, where the Tramp, fearing for his safety, dances around the ring, doing everything he can to avoid being hit. But along with the comedy, City Lights is also one of the screen’s great romances, telling a most unlikely tale of love, and building to a final scene that’s sure to bring a tear to your eye.
With City Lights, Charlie Chaplin proved to the world that a movie didn’t need sound to stir our emotions, and in perfect silence, he made us laugh while, at the same time, he was breaking our hearts.