City Lights

Released:  1931

Cast:  Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Florence Lee, Harry Myers

SUMMARY:  In an unnamed city, a new monument is unveiled during a public ceremony.  To the surprise of the crowd, The Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) is sleeping on one of the figures in the statue.  The Tramp eventually gets away from the hostile crowd, but only after nearly impaling himself on another statue figure’s sword.  He wanders through the city until he meets a young woman selling flowers (Virginia Cherrill).  The Tramp buys a flower from her, and discovers that she is blind when she cannot find a flower on the ground.  Just then, a rich man gets into a car right behind the two; the Flower Girl thinks that the man in the car is the Tramp, and that he must be a wealthy man.  The Tramp realizes what has happened, and sneaks away to avoid disillusioning her.  Later that night, he is wandering by the water’s edge when he comes across a drunken millionaire (Harry Myers) who is bent on killing himself.  With some effort, the Tramp is able to talk him out of this idea.  Both men then return to the millionaire’s mansion, where the Tramp receives new clothes.  After drinking some more, the millionaire decides that they should go out on the town.  They go to a fancy restaurant, where the Tramp is noticeably out of place.  However, they do have a good time, and do not come home until the next morning.  On the way, they see the Flower girl; the Tramp asks the millionaire for some money, then buys all the flowers the girl has.  When the Tramp compliments the millionaire’s car, the millionaire gives it to him.  The Tramp immediately uses it to drive the Flower Girl home (furthering her belief that he is a millionaire).  After leaving the Flower Girl, the Tramp goes back to the millionaire’s mansion, only to find that the man has slept things off, and is now sober.  Unfortunately, he also has no idea who the Tramp is, and is rather irate to find a strange man in his home.  By evening, though, the millionaire is drunk again; when he runs into the Tramp on the street, he remembers him, and the friendship is rekindled.  The millionaire throws a huge party for the Tramp, which runs so late that the Tramp stays at the millionaire’s house.  The next morning, the millionaire wakes up sober, and again does not recognize the Tramp; again, the Tramp is kicked out of the house.  That same day, the millionaire leaves on a trip to Europe.

While he is away, the Tramp continues to visit the Flower Girl at her house, doing his best to keep the illusion of his wealth alive.  In order to be able to give the girl and her grandmother (Florence Lee) money to live on, he takes a job as a street sweeper.  He routinely visits her during lunch, but gets in trouble with his boss for not getting back on time.  During one visit, he and the girl learn that the rent is unpaid:  if it is not paid by the next morning, the girl and her grandmother will be evicted.  The Tramp vows to get the money in time.  At the same time, he sees an article in a newspaper about a doctor who can cure blindness.  The Tramp has to rush back to work, but he arrives late, and is fired.  Almost immediately, he is stopped by a boxer who offers him a deal:  help him stage a fake fight in which the boxer wins, and get half the purse (enough to pay the rent).  The Tramp readily agrees, and that night, finds himself in the locker room with several other boxers.  Just before his fight, the boxer receives notice that the police are after him.  He flees, leaving the Tramp without someone to fight.  A manager pulls a man off the street, who agrees to fight:  unfortunately, this man packs a punch, and has no interest in throwing the fight and splitting the purse.  The Tramp does his best to win the fight, but is ultimately knocked out, and wins nothing.  In desperation, the Tramp wanders through town, only to run across the recently-returned millionaire.  Since the man is drunk, he recognizes the Tramp, and is very glad to see him.  The two go back to the millionaire’s house, and he gives the Tramp $1000 for the girl.  They are completely unaware that two burglars are hiding in the same room, having been trapped inside when the men returned.  One of them sneaks up on the men, and knocks the millionaire out.  The Tramp frantically calls for help, only to have the police mistake him for the criminal.  The butler realizes that the millionaire’s wallet is empty, and the police search the Tramp.  They find the money, and confirm their suspicions that he is the culprit.  Just then, the millionaire revives.  The Tramp frantically begs him to exonerate him, but the blow to the head sobered the millionaire, and he doesn’t remember the Tramp or the money gift.  The Tramp grabs the money and makes a run for it, going straight to the Flower Girl’s house.  He gives her the money, telling her that some of it is for the rent, and the rest for the operation for her eyes.  He then tells her that he has to go away for some time.  After leaving, he is arrested on the street and put in jail for several months.  When he is released, he looks for the Flower Girl in her usual spots, but cannot find her.  Unbeknownst to him, she has opened a flower shop with her grandmother (she has had the operation, and her sight has been restored).  However, the girl continues to think about the Tramp every time a rich man comes into the shop.  Not finding the Flower Girl, the Tramp wanders past the flower shop.  He sees the girl inside, and is so elated that he cannot talk.  Noticing his ragged clothes, the girl offers him a flower and some money, but he refuses it.  She follows him down the sidewalk, grabbing his hand to give him the money.  As she holds his hand, she realizes she has found her mystery man.

MY TAKE:  I’ve seen at least one other Charlie Chaplin movie, and I can’t say that I was terribly impressed.  Therefore, I expected this one to be along the same lines, but I was wrong.  Typically, I think of silent movies as being cheesy, dated and weak on plot.  This movie was completely the opposite (though the trailer tries to convince you otherwise):  though a lot of the humor is physical, it’s not stupid or unrealistic, and it fits into the plot.  Obviously, the movie is dated, since it’s silent, but it was dated almost from its release, since talkies were already popular.  Charlie Chaplin believed that the talkie would be a fad, and decided not to use it when he was making this movie.  Actually, I think that this was a wise decision, because his talents are able to shine through.  The two story lines give the movie both comedy and drama:  the shifting relationship with the millionaire is an ongoing laugh, while the one with the Flower Girl is sweet and tender, but not overdone.  I actually found myself laughing out loud during this movie, which I don’t think has ever happened to me during a silent picture.  The scene in question is the boxing match between the Tramp and the guy off the street, who won’t throw the fight.  Before they enter the ring, the Tramp sees that the other man is a really good fighter, and realizes that he stands little chance at winning.  When the fight starts, he uses the referee as a shield, waiting until the other man gets exasperated and puts his hands down:  the Tramp then pops out and socks the guy.  When they’re in the open, he clenches as soon as he can; after a few knocks to the head, he tries to clench with one of the corner posts and the referee.  In the process, he manages to get the other two men so mixed up that the other fighter accidentally socks the referee; the Tramp also manages to get the bell cord wound around his neck, so that every time he moves both fighters think a round is either starting or ending.  It’s pretty funny, even though the Tramp gets knocked cold at the end.  It’s also amusing that the millionaire is so friendly when he’s drunk, but has no memory of the Tramp when he’s sober.  I can understand the sober part, but I’m not sure how he would suddenly recognize the Tramp when he gets drunk again:  if you were that drunk the first time, wouldn’t you have forgotten everything?  He obviously did the next morning, like most people.  Regardless, it’s funny to watch, and it sets up some interesting situations.  This is usually regarded as one of Charlie Chaplin’s best movies, and I would have to agree.

RATING:  Funny – a silent icon at his best.

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