City Lights

City Lights (1931), written, directed, acted in, and produced by Charlie Chaplin, is the best sort of silent film. It transcends time and genre - it's a romantic comedy, but it doesn't feel outdated in any way. Even without speaking, the characters are easy to understand and emphasize with. It's easy to follow and fun to watch. I always feel sort of like silent movies have some sort of stigma, like they're just something that smarmy hipsters watch to be pretentious. Silent films are for sure outdated as a media, but they're still really fun to watch. I think comedies like this are the most accessible, since they hold up so well still.



It's sort of interesting to mention silent movies as being outdated. When I was reading Ebert's essay, he says, "When he made it, three years into the era of sound, Chaplin must have known that ``City Lights'' might be his last silent film; he considered making a talkie, but decided against it" (The Great Movies, 118). When Chaplin made this film, silent movies were already outdated. Pretty much all movies had sound at that point, and audiences had embraced it. The film, though, was a huge success. Wikipedia says that it was "one of Chaplin's most financially successful and critically acclaimed works." I think that this speaks volumes for how good this movie is - even when people had moved past silent pictures, they loved this film.

I understand why! The plot is classic and utterly charming. Chaplin is The Tramp, as usual. He notices a beautiful flower girl one day, and buys a flower from her. He realizes that she is blind, however. Later, he saves a man, the millionaire, from killing himself while drunk. The millionaire exclaims, "You're my friend for life!" Not really - the millionaire only remembers The Tramp after he's wasted.  When he is drunk, the millionaire gives The Tramp money, drinks, cars, everything. When he is sober, he kicks him out, disturbed. The Tramp uses the cars and money from the millionaire to romance the blind flower girl. The millionaire goes to Europe, as rich people will do, and The Tramp tries to get a job to keep up his wealthy veneer. He is fired, of course, after learning that the blind flower girl and her grandmother will be evicted from their apartment if their overdue rent isn't paid. The Tramp, later that night, finds out that the millionaire is back in town, and drunk again. He asks the millionaire for money for the flower girl, and he happily gives him $1,000 for her. In the morning, sober, the millionaire accuses The Tramp of stealing from him, and he is put in jail. Ebert goes on to spoil the end of the movie in his essay, but I'll stop there. You have to rent it to see what happens!

I think more than talking about why I liked the film, I want to talk about why you should watch the film. I was just looking at Ebert's essay, and like me, he realizes that silent movies are not popular anymore. He writes, "There was a time when Chaplin was hailed as the greatest popular artist of the 20th century, and his films were known to everyone. Today, how many people watch them? Are they shown in schools? I think not. On TV? Not very often. Silent film, the medium that gave Chaplin his canvas, has now robbed him of his mass audience. His films will live forever, but only for those who seek them out" (The Great Movies, 122). You have to go find these works to see them, but you will be happy when you do.

There isn't a joke in City Lights that doesn't make sense today. There isn't a plot element that we cannot understand. Everything is funny and witty and still works. It sounds more intimidating to watch silent films that it really is. If you try watching one, I highly recommend this one. More than a lot of the others ones that I have seen, this movie seems the easiest to follow and get into. When I was watching this tonight, my boyfriend Anthony (seems like I should introduce him, haha!) and I couldn't stop laughing at the scene where The Tramp swallows a whistle, cannot do anything except make whistle noises, and then attracts a pack of dogs. We lost it when The Tramp, while humoring the drunken millionaire, was pouring booze into his coat pocket instead of drinking it. I would venture that this was far more funny than any romantic comedy I've seen recently.

Talking about this movie, Ebert writes, "Chaplin's gift was truly magical. And silent films themselves create a reverie state; there is no dialogue, no obtrusive super-realism, to interrupt the flow. They stay with you. They are not just a work, but a place" (The Great Movies, 122). There is something so unique about them. I've written a lot about how some movies take you to another place that you won't ever experience. Silent movies are the same way. They don't exist in reality, but you have to love them for the magical, charming characters that they show you.

I hope that I've done a good job explaining this movie, and hopefully, you'll seek it out and watch it. The DVD is on Netflix, and it seems like you can see it in parts on YouTube, with a bit of searching. It's worth it. At the end of a long day, a depressing day, Chaplin will make you smile and cheer you up. He did for me. :)

Links:
Ebert's Great Movie essay on City Lights
Trailer of some kind

Late Night.

Citizen Kane