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"Nobody in the world but Charlie Chaplin could have done it," a reviewer for the Los Angeles newspaper The Record wrote following the first press screening of Chaplin's City Lights (1931). "He is the only person that has that peculiar something called 'audience appeal' in sufficient quantity to defy the popular penchant for pictures that talk." Flying in the face of a film-industry revolution, Chaplin had -- after months of anxiety-ridden consideration -- decided to complete the silent film as it was originally conceived, even though the rest of Hollywood had fully embraced the concept of "talkies."
Chaplin's only concession to the sound era in City Lights is to employ music and sound effects. His faith in his instincts was justified by several critics who chose the film as the best of its year, and by its later recognition as perhaps the finest of Chaplin's many masterpieces. Chaplin's unique blend of visual humor and pathos was never more fully realized than in this film, which was named to the National Film Registry in 1991.
Chaplin not only starred in City Lights but produced, directed, scored and edited it in addition to co-writing the script. The film's plot is constructed with elegant simplicity. Chaplin's Little Tramp, adrift in an unfriendly big city, befriends both a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) and an alcoholic millionaire (Harry Myers) who treats the tramp royally when drunk but doesn't even recognize him when sober. Determined to raise the money for an operation that will restore the girl's sight, the tramp tries jobs ranging from street-cleaner to prizefighter before the millionaire offers the needed cash as a gift. Unfortunately, the forgetful millionaire sobers up to believe he has been robbed and the poor tramp is sent to jail.
The movie's highlights include a slugfest between the skinny tramp and a brawny boxer (Hank Mann), and a touching finale in which the now-sighted girl at last recognizes her benefactor. It was rare for Chaplin to begin a film with an ending clearly in mind, but in this case he considered the conclusion to be all-important and constructed the entire film to lead up to this poignant moment. The celebrated critic James Agee wrote of this exquisitely wrought final sequence, "It is enough to shrivel the heart to see, and it is the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies."
Producer/Director/Film Editor: Charles Chaplin
Screenplay: Charles Chaplin, Albert Austin, Harry Crocker
Cinematography: Gordon Pollock, Rollie Totheroh
Original Music: Charles Chaplin, Jose Padilla (uncredited)
Principal Cast: Charles Chaplin (The Tramp), Virginia Cherrill (The Blind Girl), Harry Myers (The Millionaire), Allan Garcia (The Millionaire's Butler), Hank Mann (The Boxer), Florence Lee (Blind Girl's Grandmother), Jean Harlow (customer in restaurant, uncredited).
by Roger Fristoe