Only Charlie Chaplin could make a hit out of a silent movie after the transition to sound. City Lights was his first movie since talkies were invented. They had become the norm by 1929, but despite pressures to convert his flick to include audible dialogue, the star stuck to what he knew. Owning the studio helped Chaplin get his way and also gave him the freedom to do what he wished with his films and take his time in producing them.
The movie is not without some sound of its own, however. It had a recorded soundtrack –composed by Chaplin– that also includes sound effects. Poking fun at talking pictures, Chaplin employed saxophones to stand in for the speaking voices of two characters who are unveiling a statue. When the Tramp swallows a whistle, the soundtrack includes the tweeting it makes with every breath. Gunshots and the bell at a boxing ring are also incorporated into the prerecorded sound.
In City Lights, the Tramp constructs his adventure around a blind flower sales girl and a drunken millionaire. The man meets the girl (Virginia Cherrill) peddling flowers on the corner and is instantly in love. Later, the Tramp interrupts an “Eccentric Millionaire” (Harry Myers) as he prepares to drown himself. The Tramp tries to stop the drunken man from throwing in the river a large rock tied to a rope connected to the man’s neck. He fails and the two end up in the water and out and back in.
Now fast friends, the Millionaire and Tramp return to the wealthy man’s home and do some additional drinking. When the morning arrives, they are still drunk and the man tells the Tramp he may have his car. He also provides him with $10 to buy flowers from his sweetheart. After buying out her stock, the Tramp drives the blind girl home, leading her to conclude he must be rich. When the girl becomes ill and unable to work, the Tramp secures a job to help make her well. He visits her regularly when her grandmother is not home, and one day discovers without a $22 payment, the women will be evicted from their home.
The Tramp is able to secure $1,000 from his wealthy friend –who does not care for him when he is sober– but a snobbish butler (Allan Garcia), two thieves and the police send the Tramp on the run. The romantic nevertheless gets the money to his love and tells her to pay the rent and get her eyesight fixed with the remainder. He next goes to jail.
The ending of City Lights is one of the most touching endings to a film in movie history. In quite the contrast to the comedy of the rest of the picture, I became a bit choked up at the sweetly romantic final moments. The girl, now seeing and running a flower shop, runs into the Tramp and recognizes him by the feel of his hands. Chaplin affects the most adorable visage as he nervously faces the love of his life after so long apart. He says “You can see now?” She responds, “Yes, I can see now.” The double meaning is all we get to assure us that the girl is not offput by the dilapidated duds worn by our hero. As the viewer, we find ourselves as nervous as the Tramp in wondering what she will think.
Chaplin is a fantastic actor particularly in those closing, serious moments. All of a sudden the mood is changed and we’re grinning ear-to-ear for a reason other than laughter. The Tramp’s confidence is shattered outside the safety of the girl’s inability to see him, but his fictional wealth is no longer something she needs. Cherrill is even better than Chaplin. Throughout the picture she plays a convincing blind girl, but her power is shown best also in that end scene. She plays all the right emotions on her face so that we can understand what is occurring through the very little dialogue we have to explain it. Cherrill, unfortunately, did not make many more movies (but she married Cary Grant).
I don’t think I need to tell you City Lights is also full of laughs. Chaplin uses his physical prowess to construct some terribly amusing scenes. Best of all is a perfectly choreographed boxing match during which the Tramp hides behind the referee.
Source: Robert Osborne, TCM.com