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Movie review: 'City Lights' (1931)

Charlie Chaplin and Virginia Cherrill in "City Lights"
Charlie Chaplin and Virginia Cherrill in "City Lights"
United Artists

It's always difficult for me to pass up the chance to talk about Charlie Chaplin's masterpiece, "City Lights". In the film, Chaplin (who also wrote and directed the movie) plays his iconic Tramp character, who falls in love with a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) and decides to get a job to earn money for her. A series of coincidences causes the girl to believe the Tramp is a wealthy man, even as he jumps from job to job, barely getting by. The Tramp also befriends a millionaire (Harry Myers), who shows him a good time when he's drunk but never recognizes him when he's sober.

"City Lights" is hilarious, the humor climaxing in the famous boxing sequence in which the Tramp is conned into faking a fight. Harry Myers' eccentric millionaire and his relationship with the Tramp is a hoot as well, but the movie balances this humor with a sweetness that's unparalleled in any other film. "City Lights" doesn't challenge strong social issues like "Modern TImes" or "The Great Dictator", but the beauty of its simple story has resonated for generations.

The filming of "City Lights" was complicated, however. By the time Chaplin began production on the film, talkies were sweeping the nation. However, believing them to be just a fad, Chaplin stuck to what he wanted and shot "City Lights" as a silent film, although it does have a synchronized soundtrack. The movie was in production on and off for three years, and Chaplin and Cherrill hated each other; at one point Chaplin even temporarily fired her, but was unable to find another actress able to accurately portray blindness.

"City Lights" was a critical and financial success, even though it was a silent movie released among the now-popular talking pictures. Praise for the film has continued to build over the years, with many critics citing it as Chaplin's best. The American Film Institute named it as both the eleventh greatest film of all time, and it topped their list of ten best romantic comedies.

The highlight of "City Lights" is its final scene. It is difficult to find a more genuine bit of acting, or a more perfectly written and executed sequence, in all of film history. It makes all the production problems, all of Chaplin's endless retakes, worth it, because the ending of "City Lights" is simply the greatest scene ever put on film.

"City Lights" is currently streaming on Hulu Plus as part of the Criterion Collection.

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