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Onscreen credits refer to the film as a "comedy romance in pantomine." The premiere of City Lights opened the Los Angeles Theater. It was the first time a gala premiere was held in downtown Los Angeles rather than in Hollywood. Charles Chaplin attended, accompanied by Georgia Hale and Albert Einstein and his wife. According to his autobiography, Chaplin felt that the cinema was essentially a pantomimic art and that sound limited the actor's gestural expressions. When he began preparations for the film in 1928, he intended to release it as a completely silent film, but by 1931, talking pictures were so popular that he added a musical soundtrack. In an early scene, Chaplin makes fun of the tinny sound of early talking films by mimicking speaking voices with saxophones. According to modern sources, Chaplin felt that musical accompaniment should act as a counterpoint to the comedy of the film and used special sound effects in only a few scenes: the scene where he swallows a whistle; the voices of the officials at the beginning of the film; pistol shots; and the bells in the boxing ring. Modern sources credit Ted Reed with sound and recording.
According to publicity material in the copyright files, Chaplin spent $1,500,000 of his own money in making the film. A river was built at Chaplin's studio, which covered an area of five acres and cost $15,000 to construct. Two streets representing a downtown business section were also constructed at a cost of $100,000. According to his autobiography, Chaplin was angered over United Artists' lack of pre-release publicity and decided to exhibit the picture himself. He spent his own money to rent the George M. Cohan Theater and took out half-page advertisments to publicize the fact. In its twelve-week run at the Cohan, the film made a net profit of over $400,000. It became one of the top moneymaking films of 1931 and was named to the New York Times's list of the ten best films of the year. The National Board of Review named it the best film of 1931. When the film was re-released in 1950, it was banned in Memphis, TN by censor Lloyd T. Benford because of Chaplin's "immoral" character. This judgment resulted from several personal incidents that plagued Chaplin's career. Actress Joan Barry accused him in 1943 of fathering her child. Chaplin was initially acquitted on these charges when blood tests proved conclusively that he could not be the child's father, but the decision was overturned during a retrial in 1944. Also in 1944, Chaplin was indicted by a Federal grand jury on charges of violating the Mann Act, a law that makes it illegal to transport a woman across state lines for immoral purposes. Modern sources add the following information about the production: Allan Garcia, who plays James in the film, was also the casting director. Henry Clive was originally cast as the millionaire, but when he refused to fall into the water in a necessary scene, Chaplin fired him and hired Harry Myers. Modern sources note that at one point, Chaplin, displeased with Cherrill, thought of replacing her with Georgia Hale. Marian Marsh also tested for the part before Cherrill was asked to return. The exterior of the millionaire's house was shot at Town House on Wilshire Boulevard. Chaplin's former colleague from silent days, Albert Austin who is credited as assistant director, appears in the scene in which Chaplin mistakes a cheese sandwich for a bar of soap.