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CITY LIGHTS

United Artists, 1931, 87 minutes

Starring Charlie Chaplin and Virginia Cherrill

Produced and Directed by Charlie Chaplin

Film Score by Charlie Chaplin

A blind flower girl captures the Little Tramp’s heart. Smitten by her charm and beauty, the homeless hobo is resolved to rescue the girl from her hapless condition. This is the premise which drives the plot of City Lights, Chaplin’s unforgettable romantic comedy. The encounters between the Tramp and the blind girl project a gentle pathos that echoes the recurrent theme of unrequited love. By contrast, the meandering episodes, featuring the Tramp’s arduous ventures to earn money, provide broad comic relief. Enter on the scene a drunkard, distraught over his marital woes. In the course of his clumsy attempts at suicide, he is rescued by none other than the Tramp. The brooding tippler turns out to be a bourgeois millionaire! In gratitude to his rescuer, he promises to assist the blind girl. But can such serendipity be real? Or is it too good to be true? The millionaire’s behavior turns out to be erratic, his shifting moods alternating between bouts of intoxication and sobriety. Will he keep his promise to Chaplin to aid in the rescue of the poor flower girl?

City Lights was greeted enthusiastically by audiences weary of the hardships inflicted by the Great Depression. Considered one of Chaplin’s greatest films, it is preserved in the Library of Congress as a cultural treasure. City Lights ranks 11th on the list — created by the American Film Institute — of the 100 best American films. At the time the film was released, the silent era of cinema had been eclipsed by the advent of sound. Yet Chaplin would continue to work without spoken dialogue. Modern Times, his last silent feature, was released in 1936. The Great Dictator (1940), his lampoon of Hitler and Mussolini, ushered the introduction of spoken dialogue in the next wave of Chaplin films.

Although Chaplin composed mostly his own music for his films, the romantic theme in City Lights was a melodic arrangement based on the popular Spanish song, La Violetera. The composer, José Padilla, sued Chaplin for not acknowledging authorship and won.

The restored print of the film in black-and-white is available in DVD format through the Criterion Collection (which has acquired exclusive rights to the entire Chaplin Library).

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