In 1931, Charlie Chaplin was the lone hold-out in the transition to talking pictures. He wasn’t about to let sound turn the Little Tramp into a talking hobo so he defied convention and created the last silent film to come from a major American studio.
In City Lights (1931), the Little Tramp becomes the guardian angel of a blind flower seller (Virginia Cherrill) who imagines him a rich man. Thanks to the dumb luck to saving the life of an inebriated millionaire (Harry Myers), he’s able to pull off the deception, at least until his benefactor sobers up and forgets all about his drunken proclamations of friendship.
It’s a comic contrivance in film full of unlikely opportunities (“Blindness cured!” blares a newspaper headline) and slapstick complications, all of it executed with the grace and invention that made Chaplin the most popular silent comic in the world. He’s still something of a rascal but mostly he’s just a hard luck guy trying to get along in the modern urban world, waddling through one situation after another with his trademark walk and plucky earnestness.
City Lights is one of Chaplin’s most sentimental films, with the Tramp sacrificing all for his love of a blind girl who doesn’t even know his real identity. Sure, it borders on maudlin at times, but the rest mixes heartbreak and hardship with slapstick and spirited gags, all with the grace we’ve come to expect of cinema’s silent comic poet.
It was added to the National Film Registry in 1991.
It placed in the number 36 spot in the 2022 Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time poll.
Black and white, silent with musical score
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City Lights (The Criterion Channel) [Blu-ray]
City Lights (The Criterion Channel) [DVD]
City Lights [DVD]
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