City Lights, by Albert W. Vogt III

As I go through the American Film Institute’s (AFI) 100 Greatest American Films of All Time (GAFAT, I guess), I realized tonight that the shorter ones will probably be the first ones to be done.  They are also not being reviewed in any particular order as there are a significant of number of them that have already been covered.  What usually makes for films on the shorter side are those from the silent era.  I already did The General (1926).  The next one on the list is also before it on the list.  Following me?  Good!  The General is number eighteen, and today’s film, City Lights (1931), is number eleven.  Clear now?  No?  Oh well.

The illumination at the beginning of City Lights is that which God has provided since the beginning of time since it starts during the day.  In said metropolis there is an unveiling of a statue dedicated to peace and prosperity.  There are many that have turned out for the curtain drop because, well, this is what passes for entertainment in 1931.  When the cord is pulled, laying on the lap of one of the marble figures is a Tramp (Charlie Chaplin).  He is quickly shooed away, but not before a few physical comedy shenanigans that set the tone for the rest of the film.  Not long after while walking away, he encounters a blind girl (Virginia Cherrill) selling flowers on the sidewalk.  The Tramp is ignorant to the fact that she does not have the use of her eyes, and is instead taken by her beauty and her kind disposition.  Using what little money he has, he purchases a nosegay and is on his way.  Later that night, while sitting on a bench by the river, he happens upon an eccentric (and roaring drunk) millionaire (Harry Myers) who is preparing to commit suicide.  The Tramp manages to talk the millionaire off the ledge, or out of not throwing a boulder into the river that is attached to a rope strung around his neck.  You know, all in a day’s, or night’s, work, as they say.  Though they both end up taking a plunge into the river, the millionaire comes out of it, if not sober, at least with a new lease on life and a friend.  The millionaire proceeds to get the Tramp intoxicated, too, and they go out for a night on the town.  Barely making it home the next morning because they decided to drive while under the influence, they manage to get the millionaire into his house.  All the while, he is promising the Tramp all sorts of things, like his fancy car.  This the Tramp uses, seemingly better able to handle his liquor, to pick up the blind girl and drive her home after buying all her flowers for the day.  It is the budding of a romance (sorry, I could not resist) that will have the Tramp calling on her regularly.  In the meantime, when he returns to the millionaire’s house, he finds the man coming to his senses and not remembering the Tramp.  In response, the Tramp is summarily thrown out into the street.  Yet, the next evening, over served again, the millionaire spots the Tramp on the street and they are once more compatriots.  This time they wake up in the same bed together and the millionaire is shocked to find somebody he does not recognize in his chambers.  Luckily for him, he is leaving for Europe that day.  He needs a break.  For the Tramp, he is now feeling the pressure to keep up the appearance of being somebody of means for the blind girl’s sake.  This entails getting a job as a street sweeper.  Since his base of operations is near the apartment she shares with her grandmother (Florence Lee), he spends all his lunch breaks with her.  What seems to be happening during these periods is that he is spending too much time with her and is consistently late getting back to work.  We see one last instance of this before he is fired.  The timing of his sacking could not be worse as it comes following his finding out that the blind girl’s apartment has been served a final notice for the rent, the result of her being sick for some time.  The Tramp vows that he will come up with the necessary funds by the morning.  This is why losing his job is no good.  Yet, there is a momentary hope when he is approached by a boxer to fight a bout with him, promising to take it easy on the Tramp if they agree to evenly divide the $50 purse.  A problem arises, though, when he is suddenly called away by a telegram, and has to flee. The person they flag down is significantly bigger and unwilling to spit the winnings.  Though the Tramp puts up a spirited (read as comical) defense, eventually he is knocked out.  Remaining penniless, he takes to the streets and eventually encounters the millionaire.  Being his usual drunken self, the Tramp finds the friendly millionaire instead of the cranky one.  Thus, it is back to the mansion while the Tramp explains the blind girl’s plight as they go along.  Once in the sitting room (or whatever fancy name it has), the millionaire hands the Tramp a thousand dollars just before being knocked on the head by robbers who broke into the house just prior to their arrival.  When the millionaire comes to, he is back to his old self and everyone suspects the Tramp stole the cash the police find in his pockets.  He momentarily escapes, making his way to the Blind Girl’s apartment.  He gives her all the cash before departing, telling her that he does not know when he will return.  This is because he is soon arrested and spends a few months in jail.  When he gets out, he walks past the florist the blind girl had opened with the money, which was left over from getting a cure for her blindness.  Though she does not recognize his face, it is the touch of their hands that makes her know who he is, and we close with them staring into each other’s eyes.

There is one key descriptor that I left out of my discussion of City Lights.  If you know your film history, you can probably guess it.  That sentence is a clue.  It is also misleading.  It is a silent film, though that era of moviemaking really ended in the late 1920s.  Once sound came in, the transition was swift.  Yet, with Chaplin making films like this one, I cannot say that I blame him for wanting to stick to his old way of doing things.  If you have seen other examples of his work, then perhaps you are like me and are tugged by the heartstrings while watching his movies.  This is true for The Kid (1921) and City Lights.  You do not have to be a practicing Catholic to have sympathy for the blind girl, though I wondered at Biblical allusions when they talked about her blindness being cured.  What touches my Christian spirit most about her is her meekness.  Jesus does tell us that they shall inherit the Earth (Matthew 5:5).  The film bears out this idea.  While the Tramp is undoubtedly attracted to her physical charms, it is the fact that she evidently needs help that appeals to his nobler side.  What is more is that she does not lose that disposition once she gets the money and opens her own business.  The Tramp, looking more the part after spending time behind bars, comes to the (I guess formerly) blind girl as he wanders past her window.  Seeing his interest in flowers, she attempts to give him a free one, along with a coin.  That is such a wonderful gesture, and it is in the kindness that these two kindred souls recognize each other.  It points to something beyond the flesh that God indelibly marks upon us all.  Simply put, it is love.

There are still a lot of titles to go on AFI’s Top 100 list.  I am sure I will be making a lot of recommendations from them, and City Lights is one of them.  This is not simply nostalgia for a simpler time.  It is a sweet movie, and the world needs more of them, if not of the silent variety.


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