Throwback Thursday: City Lights

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past—typically “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important in some aspect.

After looking at an American classic last week that was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry—1955’s Night of the Hunter—I thought I’d focus on one more film that has also received this recognition from the Library of Congress, Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights. Filmed and edited over a three-year span and finally released in 1931, it is considered to be one of Chaplin’s greatest films.

Poster of Charlie Chaplin's City Lights 'Charlie Chaplin Les Lumieres de la Ville'
There is a loose plot focused on Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character falling in love with a blind flower girl and trying to raise money for her to receive an operation to be able to see, but really it’s more of an excuse to see some great Charlie Chaplin comedic pieces. We see the Tramp try to get and hold a street cleaning job, make some money boxing, and even befriend a drunk millionaire. Through it all we learn that people are more important to the Tramp than money.

All the different set pieces focus on the timing of Chaplin, from his first scene where he wakes up on a new statue and slowly has to get down all while being watched and taunted by a crowd of city officials, to the saving of a drunk millionaire trying to commit suicide. These moments all add up to a whole, but for me didn’t flow as well as they could have. Scene endings seem abrupt. I think part of that is the era when it was made. I’m sure in the 30s when film was still young enough that everything was new and fresh; by now, we all know when certain props are introduced into a comedy that the scene won’t end until they are used.  Don’t get me wrong, I think the scenes are well-directed, acted, and paced, but I felt myself checking my watch from time to time.

Scene from the Movie where The Tramp is facing away from a lying down statue and has his rear is placed against the outstretched arm of the statue

The Little Tramp.

One of the interesting historical elements of the film is that, at the time, sound pictures were really taking off. Chaplin made a huge gamble with the film by deciding to keep it as a silent film. He didn’t think the Tramp character would translate to a “Talkie.” And his gamble paid off. City Lights was the highest grossing film of his career. He had some hits afterward, but his films after City Lights tended to focus on more political ruminations; for example: The Great Dictator and Modern Times. You can still see the political subtext gestating in this film with how Chaplin wrote the millionaire; here’s a rich character who can only remember the Tramp when he is drunk but when he is sober he treats Chaplin’s Tramp, who values people above money, horribly.

City Lights still with The Tramp standing alone on a well-lit ledge at night.

The Tramp just before saving the drunk millionaire from suicide.

All that being said, the film is worth viewing for the comedic timing and fun physical acting of Chaplin. It is also required for the last scene alone. After the Tramp has spent most of the film trying to raise money for the blind flower girl’s operation and succeeding, he is sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. When he is released, he goes back to the street corner where he used to see her but doesn’t find her. At this point she has had her operation and can see. She has opened her own flower shop, hoping to re-meet the man who changed her life but not knowing what he looks like. In the final moment of the film they meet, with him being shocked and her not recognizing him. Then she gives him a flower and when their hands touch, she knows. There is an amazing look between the two and the film ends.

A scene from the movie where the woman who has her corrective surgery finally recognizes The Tramp after their hands meet.

Doesn’t do the full scene justice.

Feel free to discuss the film further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

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