Sunday, March 11, 2012

Silent Sundays: City Lights (1931)

“Be brave! Face life!”

            Whenever I think of silent films my mind automatically goes to the 1920s when most of the films mostly had a sepia tone and the actors and actresses were way over dramatic. But for this Silent Sunday edition I am writing about one of Charlie Chaplin’s most enduring and beautiful films City Lights which was released in 1931. A silent film made in 1931? Well technically Chaplin started the film in 1927 and it took him quite a long time to finish and release it.
            The film starts out on one of the greatest notes ever: the town is gathered in a park for the unveiling of a monument. When the mayor removes the sheet the whole town gets a surprise when they see the homeless Tramp fast asleep in the arms of one of the statues! Hilarity and clumsiness ensues as the Tramp tries to get off the group of statues.
            After the Tramp breaks free he walks down the street and rounds a corner where he sees a pretty blind girl selling flowers.  As he stands near her a car door slams and the girl thinks the nice poor Tramp is rich.
            That night while taking a stroll along the bank of a river and admiring his beautiful flower he comes across a drunken rich man who wants to end his life by tying a rope around his neck and drowning himself. Well the rope winds up around the Tramp’s neck somehow and he falls in the water. Both men kind of wind up saving each other in the end. The rich man is so happy that he takes the Tramp home for drinks and merriment. That night the man gives the Tramp a lot of money but in the morning the man does not remember the Tramp and has his butler kick him out. The Tramp takes the money and the man’s car and drives over to the blind girl. He buys all the flowers and drives her back to her home where she lives with her grandmother.
            Again the Tramp runs into the rich man who is yet again drunk. This turns into a hilarious running gag that never gets old it just gets funnier.
            The Tramp lets the blind girl believe that he is rich even though he has nothing now that the rich man has left for Europe. They have a wonderful time together. One day while reading the paper he sees that a man in Europe has developed a cure for blindness. Now more than ever the Tramp is determined to get money for the girl he admires. He gets a job but that does not last too long. He gets picked to fight in a boxing match but that does not go over too well for him.
            Help comes in the nick of time when the rich man comes back and spots the Tramp. Again he takes the poor man back to his house but this time the rich man gives the poor man one thousand dollars in cash. Before they arrived two robbers entered the house and hid when the two men came in. The robbers show themselves and hit the rich man on the head. The blow sobers the man up and he does not know who the Tramp is. The butler thinks the Tramp is the robber and chases him out of the house. The Tramp narrowly escapes being caught by the police.
            The Tramp goes to the blind girl’s house and gives her the money so she can get the operation and her grandmother can pay the rent. He tells her he has to go away for a while but he will be back. When he leaves and walks downtown he is caught by the police and put in jail.
            Some time later when the Tramp is released he sees the blind girl has opened a flower shop with her aunt. She can now see and looks more beautiful than before. He looks at her with the most childish grin on his face as he sees her moving about. Since the girl was never able to see him before she has no idea who he is. She realizes who the Tramp is when she takes him hand to give him a flower and a coin.
            The more I watch Charlie Chaplin films the more I notice and see how brilliant this man was because all his films I have seen so far have been so beautiful from the direction, the lighting, the characters, and the stories. When his films are over I feel moved, the stories and the characters move me which rarely happens since I have seen so many films with so many different characters.
            Chaplin was known for taking a long time to complete his films. By this time he was still tied to a studio/distributing company when he had created United Artist along with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and DW Griffith. UA was waiting some time for him to finish his contract with the other studio. They were waiting for him to make a film on the caliber of The Kid mostly because the studio was already in trouble. Mary Pickford was upset because she was very money conscience when Chaplin was taking forever to finish this film. But when City Lights hit movie screens it was a big hit and UA was saved… for the time being.    
            There are so many fantastic scenes it is hard to pick my favorite. I died laughing at the beginning when the Tramp was sleep on the statues. That whole sequence just goes on but it is hysterical. The boxing match is one of Chaplin’s well known scenes from his films. Even before he steps into the ring you are doubled over laughing.

            I caught City Lights on TCM with an introduction and ending commentary by Robert Osborne. Osborne said at the end that Virginia Cherrill deserves a lot of the credit. He also says that she had a nice face and a warm smile that was perfect for the role. I have to completely agree with Osborne Cherrill did have a very beautiful face and it was perfect for the innocence and sweetness of the character.
            City Lights is a wonderful film. There are so many scenes that are hysterical and fun to sit through. The film went through a lot of highs and lows in the time it took Charlie Chaplin to make it but the end result is perfection that will put a smile on your face and warm your heart.

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