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One day, after causing outrage at the (meant-to-be) formal unveiling of an elaborate statue, The Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) is taken with a pretty young woman (Virginia Cherrill) selling flowers in the street. When he realises she’s blind, he is moved to try and help her. When she falls ill, he’s mortified. He is drawn into a boxing show to try and win some money, but in the end it’s a wealthy and wacky drunkard (Harry Myers) with a big house and Rolls Royce who befriends him and offers to help with cash. The Tramp has seen newspaper reports of a doctor who can operate on the blind – and he intends to help her pay for the operation. Sometime later, he passes a florist where he sees the woman now working with her sight restored. She slowly realises who he is. 

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
This is almost his last silent film. Proving – three years after talkies arrived – that talk is not always the only form of communication on screen, Charlie Chaplin made City Lights as if to emphasise for all time that it’s body language that really counts. Well, if you include all the acrobatics, physical comedy business and the sentimental declarations that fill his films. City Lights is a charming, moving, funny and memorable work, showing Charlie in his 30s and at the peak of his creative output. While the story has pathos and drama, his ability to spice the story with comic action makes the film more complex and less maudlin or melodramatic than it might have been. 

For example, when he agrees to go a few rounds for a few dollars with a rogue boxer, Charlie sets up the scene for a variety of comedic outcomes, including his opponent being replacd by a bigger, tougher and meaner man. This is the sort of circumstance that gets our sympathy juices going; we love losers with heart.

It is also a perfect example of why Chaplin resisted talkies: The Tramp’s language was always mime, not dialogue. And his sense of humour relied more on double jointed action than double entendre. But he did,n fact, use sound in City Lights: music and sound effects. Dialogue was not used, and the old silent movie text cards flash on the screen – not very often. Charlie’s films can be told with pictures.

Virginia Cherrill is delightful as the flower girl, and the famous final shot will move even the most cynical hearts to soften in response to the human warmth it generates. Ironic, really, considering she was his one leading lady who didn’t like him – nor he her.

The film’s score, another Chaplin original, is sweet and effective, with occasional reminders of Smile in tiny snatches.

It took almost 3 years to make; the story changed several times, including one version in which a clown goes blind but tries to keep it a secret, as we learn in David Robinson’s (predictably) well informed and interesting introduction. 

The 25 minute Chaplin Today (each disc has a dedicated doco relevant to the film in this series) is wonderfully entertaining (not to mention informative). There’re snippets from animation, and historical stuff that’s much more than trivia. 

There’s a lovely surprise, too: a connection between Charlie and Peter Lord, founder of Aardman Animation, who gave the world claymation masterworks like Wallace & Grommit, and Chicken Run. Lord used one of Charlie’s routines as the inspiration for an early claymation comedy. You’ll also want to see the excerpts from the silent short, The Champion. Here’s nine minutes of mayhem, if you like physical comedy and belly laughs.

All these extras and the film itself effectively sum up Charlie’s amazing talents, developed in the English Music Hall, exploded on the silent screen and exported to every corner of the world. He truly spread sunshine with his work.

Published March 18, 2004

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City Lights



(US, 1921)

CAST: Charlie Chaplin

DIRECTOR: Charlie Chaplin

SCRIPT: Charlie Chaplin

RUNNING TIME: 80 minutes

PRESENTATION: Disc 1: B/W; 1.33:1 (4:3 full frame transfer); DD 5.1 (remastered)

SPECIAL FEATURES: Disc 2: Introduction by David Robinson; Chaplin Today: documentary; outtake/discarded idea; Georgia Hale screen test; Chaplin and boxers; excerpts from The Champion; Winston Churchill’s visit; Chaplin speaks; Bali trip; trailers, posters


DVD RELEASE: March 17, 2004

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