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Question for Discussion: What are the major
differences in substance and style between
Chaplin's City Lights and recent films you
have seen?

Reading Mintz and Roberts, pp. 31-42, 75-82, ;
Musser, “Work, Ideology, and Chaplin’s Tramp”;
Jaffe, "Fighting Words: City Lights, Modern Times, and the Great Depression";
Roger Ebert, "Review of City Lights";

Film: City Lights (1931)

Assignment : Come to class with a list of your ten favorite
movies and your ten worst movies.

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Critical Reviews of City Lights

The Great Depression

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"Talkies are spoiling the oldest art in the world - the art of pantomime. They are ruining the great beauty of silence. They are defeating the meaning of the screen."
- Charlie Chaplin, 1929

City Lights is the quintessential
silent film

City Lights is the quintessential silent film - sound would have ruined it. Had Chaplin made an early transition to talkies, this masterpiece would never have reached theaters. "

James Berardinelli

"But, when she touches his hand, she understands who he is. Title cards are used to convey their sparse dialogue. (Her: "You?" Him: "You can see now?" Her: "Yes. I can see now.") Yet words would have ruined the moment, which features heartbreaking performances through body language and facial expression from both Chaplin and Cherrill. It is an indelible exchange that is often presented as a clip to illustrate the strength of silent films, but is inexpressibly powerful when shown in the context of the entire movie."

James Berardinelli

Chaplin's Little Tramp

"Of all Chaplin's films ....City Lights offers the
fullest characterization of the Tramp. He's a
loner who comes and goes almost like a
dream figure or a drunken angel. Without
family, friends, or a place to live, he stands
outside of our reality, sometimes trying to fit
in and sometimes not caring whether or not
he does. Yet, like a child, he is a complete
innocent with a pure heart and the best
The most touching thing about his
relationship with the Flower Girl is that,
because she is blind, she cannot see his
shabby appearance and does not judge
him the way others do. And, when her
sightlessness has been lifted, her attitude
does not change. Her new eyes see past
the hobo's clothing."

James Berardinelli

Ebert on City Lights

"If only one of Charles Chaplin's films could be preserved, ``City Lights'' (1931) would come
the closest to representing all the different notes
of his genius. It contains the slapstick, the
pathos, the pantomime, the effortless physical
coordination, the melodrama, the bawdiness,
the grace, and, of course, the Little Tramp--the
character said, at one time, to be the most
famous image on earth."

Roger Ebert

Ebert on the Magic of City Lights

Having just viewed ``City Lights'' and ``Modern Times'' again, I am still under their spell. Chaplin's gift was truly magical. And silent films themselves create a reverie state; there is no dialogue, no obtrusive super-realism, to interrupt the flow. They stay with you. They are not just a work, but a place.

Most of Chaplin's films are available on video. Children who see them at a certain age don't notice they're ``silent'' but notice only that every frame speaks clearly to them, without all those mysterious words that clutter other films. Then children grow up, and forget this wisdom, but the films wait patiently and are willing to teach us again.


Delbanco on the Genius of City Lights

"The genius of this film is not necessarily in its plot, although its very romantic overtones create a wonderful breeding ground for the pathos that Chaplin wanted to create. If not just the plot, the genius is in the execution of each scene, as the film builds to a crescendo that crashes into the final scene—perhaps the greatest ending in the history of cinema. Each scene was done to perfection—Chaplin shot the scene where he meets the flower girl 342 times until it was to his liking. Some scenes, like the famous boxing sequence, are hysterically funny, and others, such as where Charlie begs his millionaire sometimes-friend not to kill himself, are very poignant. The common theme, which winds itself into every aspect of this film, is the air of quiet desperation that pervades Chaplin's character. Always the loner, the tramp has finally found the one person who accepts him--perhaps only because she cannot see him. In any case, he will do anything— anything —for her, and in the more manic scenes, the score appropriately rises to reflect his almost crazed passion.

"Towards the end of the film, Chaplin is forced to essentially steal money from his friend to pay for the eye operation. (In a cruel twist of fate, his friend only remembers Charlie when drunk out of his mind.) After giving the money to his love, he tells her (through a dialogue card, of course) that he “will be going away for a little while.” In other words, he knows that he will soon be going to jail, but cannot quite bear to tell her. Months pass, and the final scene shows the even dirtier than usual tramp walking down the street. We come to realize that he is walking past the flower girl's new shop—she can now see and is beautiful and sought after by very eligible young men. In an encounter that must be seen to be understood, she gives the tramp a flower out of pity, and touches his face. In that moment, she realizes who he is, and all her dreams of the rich gentleman who will someday come back to her are dashed. The camera fades to black on their faces as he asks her: "You can see now?" She responds simply: "Yes. I can see now." The last image is of Chaplin's heart-broken, yet slightly hopeful face.

"Orson Welles said that City Lights was the greatest film ever made. Whether or not he is right, the final scene is certainly the most indelible cinematic moment in my mind. The mixture of mutual love and despair on the faces of Chaplin and the flower girl—all in a few fleeting seconds—display more emotion than thousands of words of dialogue could ever convey. "

City Lights (1931) Review by Ben Delbanco

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1. Why does the blind girl think the tramp is a millionaire?

2. How does the background music in this movie drive the story and the plot?

3. Why does the tramp keep the millionaire from killing himself?

4. Who do you think is the primary audience for this movie?

5. How are the wealthy portrayed in this movie? Why are they shown partying so often?

6. Why does the tramp fall in love with the blind girl?

7. Why doesn't the millionaire recognize the tramp when he is sober?

8. Does the tramp want to be respected and seen like a gentlemen?

9. Why doesn't the tramp like work?

10. Are there times in the movie where people don't see the tramp, and they blindly walk around him?

11. How does the tramp approach people after getting out of jail after serving time for robbery?

12. Does the blind girl, who can now see, fall in love with the tramp when she recognizes him? Did she already love the tramp?

13. What does the blind girl mean when she tells the tramp, "I can see now"?

14. Does the tramp hope that the blind girl, who can now see, will still love him even if he is just a tramp?

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