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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