A tramp falls in love with a beautiful blind girl. Her family is in financial trouble. The tramp's on-and-off friendship with a wealthy man allows him to be the girl's benefactor and suitor. Written by
John J. Magee <email@example.com>
Chaplin's Masterpiece...and Oh Those Last Five Minutes!
Let me join the consensus and call Charlie Chaplin's "City Lights" a masterpiece. It's only 81 minutes long, but they are among the best 81 minutes you could spend at the movies, and the last five minutes are simply exquisite. Keep your Kleenex box at arm's length as I doubt if there has been a more honestly heartbreaking scene captured on film. When the formerly blind girl gives the Little Tramp a flower and ultimately says "Yes, I can see now", the scene takes on such emotional gravity as to defy explanation.
Chaplin was at his zenith in 1928 when he started a journey of more than two years to develop and film this story, and the Little Tramp had already been a familiar character to audiences for over a decade. He had already made the classics "The Gold Rush" (1925) and "The Circus" (1928) starring his character, so it's obvious he felt a need to take a slightly different direction and deepen the character this time. The advent of talkies didn't stop Chaplin from making this "Comedy Romance in Pantomime" (as he subtitled it), as he knew giving the Little Tramp a voice would limit his appeal as a universal character. What I particularly enjoyed in this film is how the Little Tramp fancies himself as a well-mannered gentleman in spite of all the circumstances that bring him down, even going to prison for love. It is this self-delusion and his subsequent mistaken identity as a millionaire that leads him to the blind flower girl, played in an effectively plaintive manner by Virginia Cherrill. Her performance is a greatly underrated element in this film, as she displays the right amount of vacant innocence to make the last minutes so memorable. Simply compare her to the screen test shown of Georgia Hale, Chaplin's leading lady in "The Gold Rush" and an obviously more experienced actress than Cherrill, as Hale struggles to show the right balance between condescension and beatific revelation when she realizes the Little Tramp is the "wealthy" gentleman who paid for the restoration of her sight.
Of course, this would not be a Chaplin film without the brilliance of his comedy routines and there is a treasure trove of classic scenes - the rising and lowering of the street elevator, the shifting musical chairs scene at the nightclub, the mock suicide at the canal and especially the boxing scene, which has been imitated by so many lesser filmmakers (and was according to the footage included as a DVD extra, inspired by an earlier Chaplin short "The Champion" from 1915). Even a simple moment, for example, when the Little Tramp mistakes a piece of thread from his vest for a ball of twine, is impressive for the sheer delicacy of the moment. And special mention needs to go to Chaplin's musical score, where he beautifully interweaves José Padilla's "La Violetta" as his love theme.
The transfer to DVD is very good, and the 2-DVD set has plenty of extras though they vary in quality. The Serge Bromberg documentary provides an informative supplement to the film, and the footage of Chaplin from a Vienna press tour is fascinating since it captures the long-forgotten worldwide frenzy he created back then. The aforementioned Georgia Hale screen test is a worthwhile addition but runs on a bit too long. The 10-minute home movie of Chaplin's trip to Bali has a certain anthropological interest but seems rather pointless otherwise. Regardless, the movie itself is rewarding enough and an exquisite jewel that completely justifies Chaplin's reputation as one of the world's leading filmmakers.
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