(United States, 1931)
I will freely and openly admit that I am poorly versed when it comes to silent films. Over the course of my life, I have seen less than 100 of them (probably closer to 50). To me, many seem more like curiosities and windows into the past than complete motion pictures. My favorite from the silent era – and, indeed, one of my all-time favorites - is Chaplin's finest motion picture, City Lights. It is the only silent film ever to elicit a tear from me, and it stands up well against the best of the talkies. City Lights is an emotionally powerful drama about love and self-sacrifice that includes some of the best humor ever committed to the silent screen by Chaplin or Buster Keaton. I first discovered City Lights on VHS when I was previewing a variety of silent films for an article on movies of the '20s and early '30s. (It was never written, but I got paid nonetheless.) Most of the films seemed to be rather run-of-the-mill curiosities, but City Lights stood out forcefully. It's easy to understand why critics used to regularly vote this as the best film of all time (until Citizen Kane stole away the honor). It's a great motion picture. It is a shame that the stigma of it being a silent film has constricted its audience in recent years. It's widely available, but, sadly, not widely seen. Roger Ebert writes that one of his most treasured movie experiences occurred in 1972, when he saw City Lights projected outdoors in Piazza San Marco in Venice. After its completion, Chaplin appeared on a balcony and waved to the crowd. Could there be a more magical moment? Had I been there (not realistic considering my age), it would surely have been a defining moment in my life.
Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
The Tramp (Charles Chaplin) is front and center in City Lights. One night when he's out and about town, he prevents a drunk Millionaire (Harry Myers) from drowning himself. The Millionaire, realizing his folly, is grateful, and brings the Tramp home with him, much to the chagrin of the Millionaire's snobbish butler (Allan Garcia). In the morning, when the Millionaire has sobered up, he doesn't remember the Tramp. By nightfall, however, with the drink again in his veins, he greets his friend with warmth and good spirits, while the butler looks on with a pained expression. Meanwhile, the Tramp has fallen in love with a gentle, blind Flower Girl (Virginia Cherrill). Using his last cent, he buys a flower from her and wears it in the lapel of his natty suit. The next day, flush with money provided by the Millionaire, he purchases her entire stock, then drives her home in his new friend's car. She mistakenly thinks he's a wealthy man, and that impression is re-enforced when he provides her with the money to pay her rent and travel abroad to have an operation to cure her blindness.
City Lights was Charlie Chaplin's farewell bow to the silent era. It's fitting that his final silent effort was also his greatest film. Although The Gold Rush, Modern Times, and even The Great Dictator all have their defenders, for its mix of physical humor and tender, heartbreaking poignancy, City Lights can't be beaten. It's an altogether wonderful gem, and one of the five best films the silent era has to offer. City Lights is the quintessential silent film - sound would have ruined it. Had Chaplin made an early transition to talkies, this masterpiece would never have reached theaters. As compelling as City Lights' dramatic element is, the film is still primarily a comedy, and features several instances of Chaplin at his best. There is a paradoxical aspect to City Lights. When recalling its charm and humor, I don't think of it as a "silent film." Instead, it springs to mind as an example of a spry narrative brought to life by wonderful performances and talented direction. Yet the means of City Lights' presentation - without talking - is a necessary part of its charm and power. Dialogue can become a crutch. Here, the characters must emote their feelings without voice, and it results in some astounding moments.
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