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With: Charles Chaplin/Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Harry Myers
Written by: Charles Chaplin
Directed by: Charles Chaplin
MPAA Rating: G
Running Time: 87
Date: 01/30/1931

City Lights (1931)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Blind Chance

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In Chaplin's magnificent City Lights, Charlie plays a drifter who is befriended by a drunken millionaire, but when sober the millionaire doesn't remember who Charlie is. At the same time, Charlie falls in love with a blind flower girl and convinces her that he is the millionaire.

Some critics have complained about the disconnect between the flower girl and the millionaire, and how they can seem like mere devices to serve each other, but the connection is simple: neither of them can "see" Charlie when in a normal state.

Chaplin started the film just before sound was first implemented in movies, and it is famous for its very long and very expensive production as the filmmaker fussed over details. Regardless, he chose to finish the movie silent and added various sound effects, such as when the Tramp swallows a whistle, he hiccups and makes whistle noises.

This is the movie with the amazing boxing scene, and the incredibly powerful and heartbreaking ending when the flower girl, sight newly regained, realizes who Charlie really is by touching his hands, then the look in his eyes when she silently rejects him. It's Chaplin at his most sublime, poetically mixing longing and heartbreak with big laughs.

The movie also has an incredible visual design, ranging from the comical statue "Peace and Prosperity" that opens the movie to the stone steps and archways where the millionaire first tries to kill himself, and outside the flower girl's home.

Though City Lights didn't receive any Oscar nominations, it was an enormous hit, and is said to have been a favorite film of Federico Fellini, Orson Welles, Andrei Tarkovsky, Robert Bresson, Bernardo Bertolucci, Joe Dante, and Jackie Chan, among others.

Extras on Warner Home Video's 2003 two-disc DVD set include an introduction by David Robinson, outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage. Both it and Image Entertainment's 2000 DVD are out of print as of 2012. Perhaps a Criterion release is on the way...

Note: An outstanding Criterion Blu-ray was released in 2013. It includes all the extras from the Warner disc, plus a brand-new commentary track by Jeffrey Vance.

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