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Film / City Lights

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"A Comedy Romance in Pantomime"
Opening Titles

City Lights is a 1931 American silent romantic comedy film starring, written by and directed by Charlie Chaplin. It also stars Virginia Cherrill and Harry Myers. Despite the fact that the production of silent films had dwindled with the rise of "talking" pictures, City Lights was immediately popular and is today remembered as one of the highest accomplishments of Chaplin's prolific career. Although classified as a comedy, City Lights has an ending widely regarded as one of the finest and most moving in cinema history.

The plot involves Chaplin, as the Tramp, falling in love with a blind flower girl (Cherrill) he meets on the street. Later he convinces a drunken millionaire (Myers) not to commit suicide, and the Millionaire proclaims the Tramp his friend for life. This lasts for as long as the Millionaire is drunk, of course. Oddly enough the Millionaire forgets who Chaplin is while sober, but remembers him again when drunk. Chaplin uses this new temporary millionaire status to woo the flower girl by buying all her flowers and driving her home in the Millionaire's car, and later by trying to pay for her rent and for an operation which will help her see again, using the Millionaire's money. This, of course, does not go over too well once the Millionaire sobers up.

City Lights provides examples of:

  • Alcohol Hic: The Tramp, while drunk at one point, accidentally swallows a whistle, causing him to hiccup, and setting the whistle off. During the process, he disrupts the Millionaire's party, inadvertently flags down several taxis, and calls a pack of dogs.
  • The Alcoholic: The Millionaire
  • Arch-Enemy: The Millionaire to the Tramp.
  • Bedmate Reveal: The Millionaire and the Tramp waking up in the same bed.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: The Tramp is usually a laid back guy, and one of the most generous citizens you could ever hope to meet, but when a pair of newspaper boys taunt him, take his cane and make fun of his tattered, shabby clothes, he takes his gloves off and arrogantly snaps his fingers right in their faces.
  • Bittersweet Ending / No Ending: Don't you want to know what will happen next?
  • Blind Mistake: Happens several times with the blind girl. At one point the Tramp is helping her ball up some yarn, and she accidentally grabs a stray thread from his clothes instead. He's too shy to correct her, and ends up helping unravel all his underwear.
  • Congruent Memory: The millionaire regards Charlie as his best buddy when drunk, but as a vagrant stranger when sober.
  • Cross Counter: Part of the boxing match. Both men go down, then take turns getting up and going down again.
  • Disabled Love Interest: The film revolves around the Tramp falling in love with a blind flower seller.
  • Dramatic Curtain Toss: The film opens with the unveiling of a large statue. When the cover is removed, the Little Tramp is sleeping on it.
  • Driven to Suicide: The Tramp prevents a millionaire from killing himself by talking him out of it. The Millionaire tends to get suicidal whenever he's drunk.
    • Specifically, he's suicidal because his wife left him.
  • Driving a Desk: A shot of Charlie and the millionaire in a car, arguing over who should be actually driving it, while street scenery swiftly passes in the background
  • Epic Tracking Shot / The Oner: The Tramp is peeking in the blind girl's window. The camera moves from the window across the living room to show the blind girl, sick in bed. An Epic Tracking Shot for Chaplin, who generally stuck to his old-fashioned silent movie directing style where the camera hardly ever moved.
  • Exploding Calendar
  • Good Old Fisticuffs: Perhaps the funniest boxing match ever filmed.
  • Hurt Foot Hop: When the Millionaire drops a rock on the Tramp's foot, the latter hops around in pain. The Millionaire had tied the rock to his neck in order to drown himself. Also, when the Butler slams the door on the Tramp's foot.
  • I Kiss Your Hand: Several times: Chaplin to the blind girl, the blind girl to Chaplin, Chaplin to a random guy thinking he's the blind girl...
  • Innocent Flower Girl: Poor and blind.
  • Internal Reveal: The final scene, when the flower girl realizes what the audience knew all along.
  • Interrupted Suicide: The Millionaire is about to tie a millstone around his neck and throw himself in the river when Charlie stops him.
  • In Vino Veritas: The Millionaire is all chummy with Chaplin while drunk, but once he sobers up...
  • iSophagus: Chaplin swallows a whistle at one point, and whistles whenever he hiccups, attracting a taxicab and several dogs.
  • Kids Are Cruel: Two newsboys repeatedly harass the Tramp simply because he's homeless.
  • Male Gaze: The Tramp sure spends a lot of time looking at that nude female statue...
  • Mock Millionaire: Charlie.
  • Nameless Narrative: No one in the film has an actual name.
  • Rags to Riches: By a lucky association with the Millionaire, Chaplin accomplishes this.
  • Rescue Reversal: The drunk and depressed eccentric millionaire is clumsily attempting to take his own life at the harbor. He has tied one end of a rope to a large stone and put the noose around his neck. The Tramp comes down the steps and valiantly intervenes to prevent the man's determined suicide, but the loop in the rope falls around his neck and pulls him into the river instead. The Tramp almost drowns and he is the one who must be saved.
  • Romantic Comedy: In pantomime!
  • Sentimental Drunk: The Millionaire is exceedingly friendly and generous when drunk, but tight fisted and mean when sober. The fact that he also tended to black out and not remember what had happened when he was drunk adds to the confusion.
  • Sight Gag: During the opening scene, the Tramp stands near the outstretched hand of one statue, effectively thumbing his nose at the crowd.
  • Silence Is Golden: The entire movie. Notable since it was released two years after the rest of Hollywood had abandoned silent films for talkies.
  • Speaking Simlish: Though it's a silent film, the speech given at the beginning to dedicate a statue is performed over a kazoo, while the serenade at the Millionaire's party is performed by a trumpet with wa-wa mute. Knowing Chaplin, this is likely a Take That! against the pressure for the Tramp to get with the times and make a 'talking' picture, as well as the often poor sound quality of the early talkies.
  • Tearful Smile: The Tramp at the end.
  • Temporary Blindness: The blind flower girl. She gets an operation to restore her sight thanks to the Tramp.
  • Throwing the Fight: In order to raise money for the blind girl, Chaplin enters a boxing match. His first opponent arranged for them to throw the match and split the prize money, but he had to leave, and Chaplin's new opponent wants all the prize money for himself. And he knocks people out in a single punch.
  • The Tramp: But of course. By the end of the film he's even more ragged than ever, having given up everything he had to help the flower girl.
  • Weighted Gloves: Subverted during the boxing scene. In the locker room Charlie finds a horseshoe which he fiddles with but eventually dismisses and goes to fight without.
  • What Did I Do Last Night?: The Millionaire, after he sobers up, does not even remember who Chaplin is or that they'd spent an entire night and day hanging out and partying. After he gets drunk again, though, the Millionaire remembers him. Hilariously, they even wake up in bed together at one point without the Millionaire recognizing Chaplin. A completely heterosexual play on the trope of course.
  • Wire Fu: Wires are actually visible in the boxing scene.
  • Wrong Side of the Tracks
  • You Just Ruined the Shot: Two dancers in the nightclub are doing the "Apache dance", a then-popular dance routine in which a pimp character is abusing his prostitute. A drunk Charlie, thinking it's real, tries to intervene, and ruins the dance.
    • This is easily lost on modern audiences, since without knowing about the dance, it's just a confusing scene where everyone seemingly stops the Tramp from protecting a woman.