MOVIE REVIEW | ***AFI WEEKEND*** #11. City Lights (1931)

“The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies was selected by AFI’s blue-ribbon panel of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community to commemorate 100 Years of Movies”. Every weekend(ish) during 2015, I’ll review two(ish), counting them down from 100 to 1.
City 1
“Tomorrow the birds will sing.”

Here we are. The last entry in this AFI Top 100 countdown before we get to the business end of things, the top 10. It’s also the last silent movie entry on the list. From here on out, it’s all talkies, mostly colour, a lot of post 50s efforts. In a way, I wish this movie had ranked higher, just so the silent era got a little more recognition. But then again, the silent era only represents about 15% of cinema history at this stage. So I guess number 11 is pretty good. But having said that, I also think the influence and legacy of Charlie Chaplin alone should have guaranteed one of his movies a higher spot on this list. Oh well, even at a more than respectable number 11, it was still an excuse for me to watch City Lights.

As some city big wigs unveil a new stature commemorating courage and prosperity, the curtain is raised to reveal a Tramp (Chaplin), asleep in the arms of the one of the statues. After much slapstick and pantomime hilarity, he leaves and begins to walk the streets, where he stumbles across A Blind Girl (Virginia Cherrill), who he immediately falls for. But as a penniless tramp, he has no way of wooing a girl. Later, when resting on a bench beside a canal, he stumbles across an Eccentric Millionaire (Harry Myers), who is about to throw himself in the canal to end it all. After much slapstick and pantomime hilarity, the Tramp saves the Millionaire, who discovers a new lease on life.

To thank the Tramp, the Millionaire takes him back to his mansion for a few drinks, then for a night on the tiles with a few more drinks. While they’re best friends as long as he’s drunk, the Millionaire never remembers the Tramp, or their friendship, when he’s sober. But the Tramp does take enough advantage of one bender to borrow the Millionaire’s car and woo the BIind Girl. But, by the time this happens, there’s still an hour left in City Lights. So we’ll need fixed boxing matches, gangsters and miracle eye surgery before the end credits roll. And of course, much slapstick and pantomime hilarity

Watching silent movies now, I generally appreciate and admire them more than I am genuinely entertained by them. But City Lights made me laugh out loud pretty regularly. Especially in its early scenes. You’d be hard pressed to find a funnier attempted suicide in movie history than the initial meeting of the Tramp and the Millionaire. And the boxing match is one of those classic, iconic scenes that you’ve probably scene, even if you’ve never watched a silent picture in your life.

City 2

At this stage, I’m by no means a Chaplin expert or completest, bit I think I’ve seen enough to have a good idea of what he was, and why he’s the icon he is today. And I think that for me, no movie sums him up or justifies that iconic status better than City Lights.   The Gold Rush might have better individual set pieces and gags. Modern Times might work better as a feature length story. But City Lights splits the difference perfectly between the two.   The balance of classic scenes, to compelling story, to just flat out funny gags, is more balanced here than any other Chaplin movie I’ve seen.

City Lights
Directed By – Charles Chaplin  
Written By – Charles Chaplin

Other Opinions Are Available. What did these people have to say about City Lights?
Roger Ebert
AMC Film Site
Journeys in Classic Film

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