City Lights: A Comedy Romance in Pantomime

Movie Review #710


Charles Chaplin Productions

Distributor: United Artists (1931 release) – United Artists (1950 re-release)
Country: USA
Languages: English (intertitles)

Directed by Charles Chaplin. Produced by Charles Chaplin (uncredited). Written by Charles Chaplin. Uncredited writers: Harry Clive, Harry Crocker.

Passed by the National Board of Review. Later rated G by the MPAA. Runs 1 hour, 27 minutes. Limited release in Los Angeles, California on January 30, 1931; in New York City, New York on February 6, 1931; and in London on February 27, 1931. Wide release in the USA on March 7, 1931. Re-released in the USA on April 8, 1950.

Starring Virginia Cherrill and Charlie Chaplin. Also starring Florence Lee, Harry Myers, Allan Garcia, and Hank Mann.

Cinemaniac Reviews four stars

Charlie Chaplin made “City Lights” during the blooming Sound Era as if to say, “I’m not yet done with silent movies.” It’s a pretty big leap of faith, but it succeeds, mainly because Chaplin is wholeheartedly dedicated to the movie. He spends the entirety of this pantomime doing what he does best—at his best. Slapstick with pathos, that would be.

The term pièce de résistance describes it perfectly. The literal French translation is “resistance piece,” and if “City Lights” isn’t, then few films actually are. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term as “the most important or remarkable feature.” Once upon a time, I swore he couldn’t get any better than “The Kid”. But where that was a standing masterpiece, what we have here is the push over the cliff. Modest, but effective and exciting.

“City Lights” is clever to the point at which smiles are rarely without guarantee. “The Tramp” returns to star in this feature, as simpleminded and kindhearted as he ever has been. The movie beautifully envisions the romance between him and a blind woman. The Tramp is desperate to make money for this young woman, so that she can pay her rent and consult a doctor in Vienna who can perhaps cure her blindness. Fortunately, there’s a millionaire who’s willing to help. Unfortunately, this is a suicidal, drunken millionaire, so he’s often less than willing to help.

Any movie with the Tramp is a fish out of water comedy, but “City Lights” might as well be the standard by which that genre should be judged. It’s purely entertaining. I feel as if the title was meant as a joke Chaplin was knocking on the audience. The leading lady in this movie is blind. She can’t see city lights, and she has never seen city lights. Ergo, he who hasn’t seen “City Lights” is (cinematically) blind. Maybe I’m reading too far into the title, but at the very least, it works.

Tomorrow’s Review

The Bourne Identity