1 Year, 100 Movies: #11 City Lights (1931)

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For 1 Year, 100 Movies, I will watch all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year- and will complete a goal on my 2013 Manifesto. Come along on the ride with me- oh, and please pass the popcorn!

As I near the top ten of the list we are continuing to close chapters in American cinema. “The Searchers” was the last western and John Ford’s last film on the list. “Star Wars” was the last George Lucas film, and “2001: A Space Odyessy” had me bidding a big good riddance to Stanley Kubrick’s films! With #11, “City Lights” we unfortunately have Charlie Chaplin’s final offering on AFI’s list, and we also usher out the silent era. Of all the silents on this list, “The General” was my favorite, but this film was pretty darn great too.

City Lights“, written, directed and starring Charlie Chaplin, was a masterpiece of silent film- written and filmed as talkies were gaining popularity. Chaplin plays the tramp who falls in love with a Blind Girl, (Virginia Cherrill) who sells flowers so she and her grandmother can make a living. As he settles on a bench for the night, he is able to stop the eccentric and alcoholic Millionaire (Harry Myers) from drowning himself near the docks. Out of drunken gratitude the Millionaire puts the Tramp in a tux and takes him out on the town. They develop a turbulent friendship- ending when the Millionaire is sober and starting up again each time he is intoxicated. The Tramp is able to get in touch with the Blind Girl, and starts a courtship. She believes he is wealthy, but the only money he can give her comes when the Millionaire is wasted.

The Blind Girl falls ill, and the Tramp takes a job so he can keep up the pretense of wealth, and to care for her. The Girl’s grandmother sells flowers in the Girl’s absence, but doesn’t sell as many. The Tramp finds an eviction notice that the grandmother hid from the Girl, and he leaves, determined to help. The Millionaire has gone on a trip, and what the Tramp has saved is not enough to cover the $20 late rent or the surgery to fix the Blind Girl’s eyesight. The Tramp is fired from his job, so he accepts an offer to box for quick money. The crooked boxer who was going to take it easy on him and split the pot of a $50 reward has to skip town, and the Tramp is paired up with a real boxer instead. This scene is hilarious- Chaplin dancing all over the ring, ducking behind the referee, getting tangled in the bell’s cord, and taking awkward swipes at his opponent. In a lesser film the Tramp would have won, but our character development won’t allow it. The Tramp looses the match in a surprising and satisfying moment, and so he must find another way to earn the money.

The Tramp stumbles into the Millionaire, back from his trip and freshly inebriated. We know that the Tramp is once again so close to coming through, but then the men enter the Millionaire’s home while a robbery is taking place. The Millionaire gives the Tramp a large amount of cash, and the robbers reveal themselves. The Tramp calls the police, and is then knocked out by the burglars. The Tramp is blamed for the crime, but he manages to escape with the money. He rushes to the Blind Girl and gives her the money for the rent and the surgery before rushing off to face the police. He has time only to say a quick goodbye and leave her clutching the needed money. This scene could have come from right out of “Sunrise” or “The Grapes of Wrath.” It doesn’t seem like the image from a comedy. That’s why “City Lights” is so good. Chaplin never takes the easy out or the suspected path. He complicates the story by forcing his characters to make difficult decisions and suffer the consequences. It is often funny, and always real.

The Tramp is imprisoned for his ‘crime’, and released months later. The Girl, having had her sight restored by the surgery, now works in a flower shop downtown. She sees a couple of young boys tormenting the Tramp, who she of course does not recognize, and laughs along with her coworker. The Tramp sees her and realizes that she can see. He tries to get away before the Girl makes the connection and his impersonation of a wealthy man is shattered. The Girl, half-mocking him, calls him back and gives him a flower. When she touches his hand, she realizes who he is. As the Girl’s slow realization becomes clearer the Tramp waits, hopeful. And that’s how the film ends. Brilliant.

A simple, human touch where other film director giants like Lucas, Ford and Kubrick and Hitchcock create complex endings. Charlie Chaplin, a true genius and pioneer of film, gives us a wonderfully ambiguous and emotionally touching ending to his cinematic masterpiece.

“City Lights” was immediately successful upon its release in 1931, netting over $5 million at the box office with positive reviews. Today, critics consider it not only one of the highest accomplishments of Chaplin’s career, but one of the greatest films ever made. It is less slapstick like Chaplin’s other films, and a more fully developed romantic comedy. This film is great because of all the small details, the never ending laughs even as our characters move on to the next challenge, and also because we get real development of the characters.

In my humble, non-professional, average movie-goer opinion this movie earns:

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