City Lights (1931)

Directed by Charles Chaplin

I have had Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights sitting on my shelf for probably a year or more. Believe it or not, I had never seen it before. So why did it take so long for me to finally get around to watching it?

Because the idiots who put the DVD together have, at the bottom of the cardboard cover, this: B&W/186 Mins.

I suppose I could have checked IMDb to see that the runtime was 87 minutes. And I should have known it was nowhere close to 186 minutes. But that would have required thought – not always my strong suit.

Everytime I’d take a look at this thing, thinking I’d watch it, I kept thinking, “Wow. A three hour silent movie …” And I’d put it off to another time. (And no, it’s not silent – it’s just sans dialogue.)

Anyway … I finally watched it last night (it’s actually about an hour and a half long) and it is, as others have asserted many times, brilliant. I absolutely loved it.

I’ll tell you what amazes me: this silent (dialogue free) film that, at the time of this watching, is 75 years old, in black and white, had me laughing out loud. I can’t think of a single contemporary film, certainly nothing in the last few years, that has prompted me to laugh out loud. Yes, I’ve enjoyed and been amused by a number – but laugh out loud? Particularly when I’m home, alone, watching it on DVD? Nope.

But City Lights had me laughing.

I loved the opening when the cover is pulled off the statue and there’s the tramp, sleeping. I also loved how Chaplin uses sound in the film – though not dialogue. It begins with the opening and the trumpet or kazoo like sounds used to mock the speechifying at the statue’s unveiling.

Later, there is the whistle scene … Utterly silly but it had me laughing. (And scenes like these are so cleverly and finely constructed! The rhythms are perfect.)

And of course, there is the prizefight scene (and the scene in the dressing room leading up to it). This is so magnificantly choreographed. And again … out loud laughs.

Finally, there is the love story that threads through the film, the tramp and the flower girl, that concludes in the brilliant final recognition scene. There’s no point in me going on about it – it’s one of cinema’s famous scenes, and others have extolled its virtues better than I will. Let’s just say, it’s a scene that should not be missed.

It’s really quite astonishing how well and completely Chaplin tells his story without words. It’s a great reminder of how film is a visual medium. It also demonstrates, as important as the camera is to film, it is performance that tells the story. Granted, the camera has to be positioned and framed well, and editing captures and underscores the rhythm, but without the essential performance (which is dependent on the script) you won’t have much of a film – at least, nothing much more than some pretty pictures.

Stars? Easy: 4 out of 4.

(Originally written & posted August 7, 2006.)

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