In what is perhaps the most memorable opening scene in cinema history, we see a group of politicians on a stage getting ready to unveil the city’s monument symbolizing its continued “peace and prosperity”. Despite being a silent film, we do hear sounds from the politicians but more of a quacking sound than their actual voices, clearly a clever ploy by Chaplin directed towards politicians in general. The large audience in attendance looks eager to witness the unveiling and once the covers are removed, they notice something that is at once, strange and hilarious. It’s the Tramp, played by Charlie Chaplin, napping on the statue’s lap, delirious to the crowd looking at him in complete astonishment, wondering how he reached there in the first place. What follows soon after is one of Chaplin’s many trademark scenes of comedic genius.
City Lights, a film which Chaplin wrote and directed himself, tells the story of his iconic character, the Tramp, as he wonders around the city. He befriends a blind flower girl and cannot help but fall deeply in love with her instantly. He also manages to save a millionaire from near death, who later invites the Tramp to his house as a show of gratitude and thanks. The film is a comedy in the truest sense as it contains many scenes that are truly amongst the greatest comedic skits ever captured on film.
As with all his other films, the success and brilliance of this picture relies solely on the shoulders of Chaplin. In City Lights, he shows an astounding range of comedy styles such as pantomime, situational comedy, slapstick, as well as melodrama. A couple of scenes highlight this clearly. One of which is that exceptionally hilarious scene where the Tramp somehow gets drawn into a boxing match. Here, Chaplin’s lightness, physical coordination and instinctive acting is on full display. Another extremely impressive scene is the ballroom scene which mostly relies on Chaplin’s gift of pure physical ability that makes one laugh uncontrollably.
Another very important element of any silent film is the music. Here, the selection is superb. The music is frantic and chaotic during the physical comedy scenes, such as the aforementioned boxing scene, but becomes tender and romantic during the quieter and more dramatic scenes, chiefly those involving the Tramp and the blind flower girl. Despite being a silent picture, you truly feel involved in this film mainly thanks to the wonderful music.
After nearly 81 years since City Lights was first released in 1931, one can clearly witness that Chaplin has crafted a timeless classic that will live on for another century or two. The comedy on show here rivals and bests any other comedy that was released since. Watching it for the second time, there were many moments where I found it very hard to stop laughing. It is not just another silent or black and white film. City Lights is something so much more than that. It is a film that shows how one’s brilliance, despite the limited capabilities at the time, can produce something so profound and memorable that is universally cherished and loved. If you were to watch only one silent film, this is undoubtedly the one. A classic in the truest sense.
- Charlie Chaplin (as The Tramp)
- Virginia Cherrill (as The Blind Girl)
1 hour and 27 minutes
Comedy / Drama / Silent / Romance