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Chaplin in Review – PART V – City Lights

27 06 2011

Copyright 1931 Chaplin Studios

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

And now we come to my favorite Chaplin feature, City Lights.  To me, this film is the perfect blend of comedy and drama and a definitive example of the genius of Chaplin’s work.  Everything comes together in this film so beautifully, both comic and dramatic devices, that I can not only call this my favorite Chaplin film, but rank this in my top 10 favorite films of all-time.

Like many of Chaplin’s films, the actual plot outline is relatively simple; it is the execution that makes this film a masterpiece.  The story revolves around Chaplin’s character of the Little Tramp, who falls in love with a poor, blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill).  Through a hap circumstance, she believes that he is a millionaire and can help her and her mother in their desperate time of need.  Determined to help, he befriends a raucous, party-driven millionaire and does everything he can to help the flower girl and her mother.  In the end, he helps them and she is able to get an eye operation that restores her sight.  But, will she be able to accept the Tramp for his true self?

By the time this film was in production, and definitely by the time it was released in 1931, sound in motion pictures was in full stride.  Silents were, essentially, becoming a thing of the past.  However, though the option for sound was fully open to Chaplin before filming began, he decided against making a sound film because he felt that the Little Tramp character speaking would ruin his entire appeal.  Turns out that Chaplin made a wise decision, as City Lights was an immense success both commercially and critically.

As for production, this film took the longest of any other Chaplin film to complete at nearly 180 days of filming from late 1927 to early 1931.  Several story points, including how to show the blind flower girl mistaking the Little Tramp for being wealthy, plagued Chaplin; the integral scene of this story point was re-shot 342 times for perfection.  Another issue for Chaplin was his dissatisfaction with Virginia Cherrill in the lead role as the flower girl.  At one point, he even went so far as to replace her with Georgia Hale; however, once realizing that too much footage was in the can and it would cost a fortune to reshoot all her scenes, he asked Cherrill to come back on board and finish the film.  Ironically, before coming back on board, Cherrill made Chaplin renegotiate her contract for more money than she was originally to be paid, something that surely didn’t help her and Chaplin’s professional relationship.

In the end, Chaplin did decide to utilize something out of the sound on film devices available, as he recorded a score and several sound effects for the film that accompanied the picture.  However, no audible dialog made the final cut, only garbled talking at the beginning of the film performed by Chaplin himself.

In the 80 years since this film was released it has received a number of commendations and places on top film lists, including being ranked #11 on the AFI’s Top 100 Best Movies of All-Time List and #1 on their list of Top Romantic Comedies.  In addition, Orson Welles was quoted as saying that this was his favorite film.  Needless to say, City Lights has definitely stood the test of time and continues to dazzle, cheer and touch audiences of all ages and from around the world.

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6 responses

27 06 2011
Dorian Kathleen Tenore-Bartilucci

Excellent review of CITY LIGHTS, with intriguing background information, too, like the bad blood between Virginia Cherrill and Chaplin!

6 07 2011
notesonafilm

Thank you so much for your kind words! Definitely my favorite Chaplin film – absolutely magical every screening!!

11 08 2011
Eric

Great review! I just watched this for the first time recently and absolutely loved it. A terrific combination of comedy, drama and romance.

21 11 2011
Jacob

Very nice review Matthew. My favorite Charlie Chaplin film is City Lights as well. I think everything comes together in the movie for Chaplin. The story is timeless and the acting, especially at the end, is flawless. I find it interesting that the movie was the hardest one of his to make. Chaplin especially had a hard time with the scene where he first meets the blind woman. He needed to figure out what would make the girl think he was rich. Ironically the solution was simple as you see in the movie. Anyway, I have been doing a study on Chaplin and it’s interesting hearing someone elses opinion on the movies. I have enjoyed the reviews.

21 11 2011
notesonafilm

So glad you liked the review, Jacob! Chaplin was a brilliant storyteller and has been one of my favorite filmmakers since I was very young. I’m sure you are already familiar in your studies, but I think the book “Chaplin: His Life and Art” by David Robinson is a brilliant biography on the genius behind the films. Chaplin’s autobiography is a great read as well, but Chaplin definitely had an affinity towards crafting his tale subjectively at times. I became really infatuated with the case revolving around Joan Barry and Chaplin several years ago, it being a darker time in the comedian’s life. Seeing as every biography only devotes a few pages to the matter, I decided to work on an article that was more extensive. Originally, I hoped to find out whatever happened to Barry, but in many hours of research nothing pointed to her eventual whereabouts, though I did find some interesting information about baby Carol Ann. I have the article up here on the site if it would interest you. Thanks again for dropping by the blog!

21 11 2011
Jacob

Yes I am actually reading Chaplin’s autobiography right now and I completely agree that it is very subjective at times. I have also watched the many documentaries involving Chaplin. The 1983 documentary “Unknown Chaplin” was actually very interesting because we were able to see Chaplin at work and a lot of his creative process. I did hear about Joan Barry as being one of the crazier people that Chaplin had an affair with. I will check out the article sometime. I might also check out the biography, although last I checked they were pretty expensive on Amazon. Thanks for the information.

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