Retro Review: Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights


Charlie Chaplin was one of the greatest actors, writers and directors that ever lived. His meticulous planning, directing and made his films ever lasting and something that withstands the tests of time. His lovable tramp character is one of the most iconic characters and have transcended films.

One of the finest films he made was actually released on this day, January 30, 1931 and that film was City Lights.  This film is an underrated classic and highly regarded by most film historians and critics. After many years later and into the next generations and new millennium, does this film still hold up as one of the greatest? Well, in lieu of it’s anniversary, we’ll be going over the story, the acting and the feeling that the film has on the audience. Let’s sit back and get our bowler hat and walking stick and hobble over to our couches as we review City Lights.

The story revolves around the lovable Tramp walking around the town during daytime and evening under the city lights (get it?) and just having all these stories getting connected. Chaplin is walking around town when he meets a blind woman selling flowers. He is smitten by her and has a desire to want to be with her. After he leaves her, later on during the evening, he saves a rich millionaire from trying to kill himself by drowning. The man is drunk and decides to invite Chaplin to come with him to a party and to his house. The main problem is when the millionaire recovers from his drunken stupor, he doesn’t remember the tramp and usually kicks him out of his house.

The rest of the story revolves the Tramp trying to raise money for the blind woman so she can pay for her rent and also get some eye surgery so she can have the ability to see. The whole movie revolves around the Tramp trying to get money through many shenanigans like Chaplin’s famous boxing scene, working at a street cleaner, and getting money from the millionaire. The plot is simple and because it’s a silent movie, the acting has to be top notch just so we can get emotional and laugh and feel something as we gaze onto the big screen.

The acting, especially Chaplin, is right on point. There is a reason he is an acting legend and this is just one of his many examples of showcasing his ability to show much emotion and feeling and comedic chops without saying a single word and just use his body language and his facial abilities. When he is with the blind woman and receiving a flower, you feel how he feels based on the way he is looking at her and how he probably has never been treated so kind by a woman in a long time that you can see how much it means to him. When he saves the millionaire, he takes off the flower that he got from her because it means a lot to him and he doesn’t want to ruin it or lose it. With the silent movie limiting the dialogue to nonexistent, the acting is pantomime.

The blind woman did a great job with her acting ability showcasing her smile and her eyes are so piercing and so innocent that you want to help her and you want the Tramp to help her as well. The millionaire plays the drunken fool well. He is grandiose and over exaggerated. He is that kind of jerk who is nice while drinking but sober, is a crotchety droll, bitter man. All the main characters each have their strong suite and use it to their ability to showcase the story and make it a nice character driven expose on the Tramp and what he does in a movie that takes place over a couple of weeks in a then modern urban city.

Silent movies are different than many modern day movies. While the modern movie gets you amped up or make you happy or sad, they have a bigger production and a dialogue and a cinematography that helps you delve into your psyche to make you feel that way. Silent movies, it is all pantomime. The actors have to showcase their expressions in the face and gestures. They have to feel it all and over extend their ability to give us the chance to get any kind of emotional response. Watching this movie, I felt what the Tramp was feeling. He is so innocent and I wanted him to help the blind woman and I wanted him to succeed and win and get the girl.

With the millionaire, I wanted him to remember the Tramp and accept that he befriended a lonely poor man who walks the street. All of these emotions is what makes this movie special. They were able to touch me and make me root for them without opening their mouths and hearing them and with a camera that many of the times were stagnant and didn’t offer mood setting or any dynamic sets. It used a nice basic set and made something special with this movie because of the actors and what they were able to do with getting their emotions and acting across and reaching the audience.

Overall, this movie is fantastic. It has lasted this long and even though many of Chaplin’s works get more credit like The Great Dictator, Modern Times and The Kid, let’s not forget that this is a great movie that does show us some great comedy with the boxing scene, great emotional responses when the Tramp sees the blind woman at the end of the movie, and the frustration you feel when the millionaire runs into the Tramp at different times intoxicated. The movie hits every chord of your emotions and it is a nice movie to spend time watching alone or with a group of people who value classic movies. The movie was released in 1931, so, it is now 87 years old. Happy birthday City Lights and may you continue to be the beckon and starting point for people to admire classic silent movies.