A Summary and Review of City Lights

A Summary and Review of City Lights

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  1. City Lights (1931)

    Producer/Writer/Director/Composer: Charlie Chaplin
    Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Florence Lee, Harry Myers


    Charlie Chaplin was a revolutionary renegade filmmaker. He was most famous for practically creating and perfecting the romantic comedy genre, being the first person to blend comedy and drama perfectly. The perfect film to display this brand of Charlie’s genius would be City Lights.


    The city officials are excited to be unveiling a new statue in the town square. That is, until they find The Little Tramp, Charlie’s trademark character, asleep on the statue. Charlie attempts to leave as the angry cries from the crowd get louder, but he struggles to do so. When he manages to finally get off, the poor destitute Tramp in raggedy clothes wanders the streets, hungry and alone.

    Charlie is walking along when he sees a beautiful young flower girl. The smitten Charlie decides to buy a flower with the little money he has left. When the girl tries to give him his change, a rich man walks into his car that is parked near them and drives off. The girl assumes that Charlie has left the change with her and has driven off in a nice car, and therefore assumes he is a rich man. Not wanting to correct her, he quietly walks away.

    Later that day, Charlie runs into a drunk millionaire attempting to commit suicide by throwing himself into the river. Charlie tries to stop him and after nearly drowning himself, saves the rich man. Being ever so grateful to him, the millionaire takes Charlie out on the town and they spend the rest of the night drinking and being merry. The next morning, they arrive at the rich man’s mansion. Charlie spots the flower girl and asks the man for money to buy flowers. After getting the money, Charlie buys all of the girl’s flowers and offers her a ride home in the millionaire’s nice car, which only instills the thought in the girl’s mind that he is indeed rich. When returning back to the mansion, the millionaire has sobered up and completely forgotten meeting Charlie. He assumes he is a beggar and tosses him out of his house.

    Meanwhile, the girl tells her grandmother, whom she lives with, about the rich young man and how she is beginning to fall for him.  Later, Charlie meets the rich man, except he is drunk and seems to remember Charlie once again. He takes Charlie back to his house for a party. But just as last time, he tosses out Charlie once he has sobered up, again not remembering him.

    When visiting the flower girl at her house, he finds her being attended by a doctor and discovers that she is actually very sick. Determined to help his beloved, Charlie gets a job as a street-sweeper. Later on, the flower girl’s grandmother receives an eviction notice, saying that they will be evicted if their rent is not paid. She hides this from her granddaughter and goes out to try to make more money.

    Charlie visits the flower girl on his break, and finds an ad in the newspaper that is offering an operation to cure blindness. Also while at her house, Charlie discovers the eviction notice and tells the girl about it. The girl is devastated but Charlie vows to her that he will raise the money to get her that operation and pay for the rent.  But when he returns to work, he is fired for being late. Desperate for work, he takes up an offer to become a boxer, despite being afraid to fight. He decides to make a deal with his opponent to let Charlie win and split the winnings and he agrees. But his opponent is suddenly forced to leave when he learns that the police are after him. Unfortunately, the replacement for Charlie’s opponent is much tougher and less willing to let Charlie win. A frightened Charlie is forced to fight the man, and despite coming close, he loses.

    He runs into the rich man (drunk) again and asks for the money that the girl needs. He gives it to him, but the rich man is knocked unconscious by robbers. By the time the police arrive, the robbers have fled. However, the millionaire notices some money missing and the police search everyone there, including Charlie. He tries to explain that the millionaire gave him the money, but having sobered up, the millionaire does not remember doing so.

    Charlie manages to escape and gives the money to the blind girl. He tells her that he may not see her for awhile, for fear of being captured by the police. Sure enough, Charlie gets arrested and sent to jail soon after giving her the money.

    Sometime later, Charlie is let out of jail. The girl now has her vision and is running a flower shop with her grandmother. With every rich man that enters her shop, she is hopeful that it is the kind rich man that had helped her. Charlie is completely shocked when he sees her but the girl, not realizing who he is, thinks that he is just a regular costumer. Charlie is speechless as the ignorant girl continues to try to convince him to buy some flowers. She gives him one but he drops it. The girl grabs the flower and places it in his hand, and instantly, she knows. She feels his hand in hers, and looks him in the eyes and asks if he is the man she has been looking for. A shy, bashful Charlie nods in confirmation. He asks her if she can see now, and she confirms that she can indeed see now.


    By the time City Lights was in its premature stages, silent films had begun to become obsolete. In fact, just mere days after his previous film, The Circus, was released, the very first sound film was released as well, The Jazz Singer. Many of Charlie’s friends and family were advising him not to make another silent film. But Charlie was not a follower. He was a leader. He didn’t care. Charlie believed that film was a medium for pantomime. He believed that speaking just ruins the entire film experience. But the public did not agree with him. That is, until they saw the film. Despite being "obsolete," City Lights would go on to become Charlie’s most successful, important, influential, and memorable film of, not just the time it was released, but of all time.

    This film is perhaps the only film that challenges the tenderness and beauty of The Kid and The Circus. City Lights is simply stunning in its compassion and stirring in its delicate artistry. The film was Charlie’s third film to be added to the National Film Registry, an honor which is reserved for the most important films in America. It was also voted by the American Film Institute as the greatest romantic comedy of all time and I do not disagree in the least.

    The film isn’t just emotionally dazzling; it’s also very funny. There are buckets and buckets of brilliant moments that are just so Chaplin. There’s the boxing scene, the suicidal millionaire, the party dancing scene, and many more. It’s just as funny as any of Chaplin’s best, so don’t go thinking it’s just one long sappy drama movie.

    But what’s truly incredible about this film is the story. The story is positively bewitching with what is generally considered to be one of the greatest endings in film history.  It was just an enchantingly tender moment. Charlie was always known for his expertly precise comedic timing. But no one even considered the skill he had in his dramatic timing! The set-up for the scene is accurate to a T. In a way, you know what’s going to happen and it’s so thrilling to think about how it will happen. And then, there’s the moment where everything, everything the Tramp and the girl had experienced together, it all quickly fuses into that unimaginably beautiful moment that’s so touching and moving. But at the same time, it breaks your heart, because the ending is also known for being so ambiguous. The look on the girl’s face, unsure of her feelings, opposite the hopeful, wistful, cutesy smirk on The Tramp’s face is the most reeling image you could imagine. The combination of Charlie’s intricate storytelling, his breath-taking performance, and the subtle camera, provides one of the greatest endings of all time.

    It does so many things, and it does each thing perfectly. The incredible blend of rip-snorting slapstick, heart-gripping drama and hear-melting romance is masterful. What makes City Lights so great is how well everything comes together by its end and how the ending makes you realize how beautiful, touching, funny, and charming the entire experience is. Another perfect example of why Charlie was the best.

    RATING: 100/100

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