Charlie Chaplin’s fifth feature-length film (after scores of shorts), CITY LIGHTS (available on DVD) was released early in 1931, the third full year of all-talking pictures and though it had numerous sound effects, a synchronized score, several sound jokes including some sardonically squeaky babble at the beginning, it is a silent movie, the last one made. Everybody had warned Chaplin that this was a terrible risk, since while he was shooting it over a period of nearly three years, the craze for sound films had exploded and entirely transformed the picture medium.
But Charlie’s gamble worked. Released as the novelty of talking films was wearing off, City Lights became a huge box office success, prompting Variety in 1932 to note that the picture’s grosses showed “that Chaplin was right about silence on the screen,” and, indeed, comparing the overall figures for sound films versus silents, concluded, “Silence in pictures, after all, was golden. It represented in money from some individual pictures much more for their makers than any talker to date…” The reason why, the trade paper argued, was “the gigantic possibilities of silents, with the world market to pick from, as against talkers with outlet narrowed.”
The article’s headline, “SOUND FILMS SHY BIG SILENT SUMS,” was prophetic, for although there was no turning back for the industry, movie attendance, after rising precipitously in the first year of full sound, soon dropped just as sharply, and never again reached the extraordinary peaks achieved during the silent era. (Chaplin’s last great success, and the last Tramp movie, Modern Times, released five years later, was also in most ways a silent picture, but there was some dialog heard and Chaplin did sing a sort of French-accented gibberish song toward the end.)
Below the surface of City Lights, there is an ache of nostalgia for the lost Eden of the silents that is still palpable today. Since talkies had so definitively taken over, Chaplin felt the need to subtitle his movie: “A Comedy Romance in Pantomime.” Like most of his stories, City Lights has the Dickensian-Victorian sentimentality Chaplin so often recalled. The blind flower girl central to the plot was a pretty dated concept even then, but within the fable-like atmosphere evoked, and the dreamlike quality natural to silent movies, it still works today. And this is tempered by the sharply satirical element of the millionaire who only when drunk recognizes and loves the Tramp; when sober, he wants nothing to do with the little fellow. Both Virginia Cherrill as the blind girl (the lovely actress would later become Cary Grant’s first wife) and Harry Myers as the millionaire are exceptionally believable.
I first saw City Lights in Manhattan when I was 24 and the picture was already 32 years old. On my movie-file card, I gave it the highest rating and raved: “One of the sublime achievements in the history of the movies. Perhaps Chaplin’s greatest work, certainly the one in which he alternates comedy and tragedy with the most incredible facility and success. Several times it is achingly funny, and at least twice truly heartbreaking. Of course, the ending—-the final close-up—-far surpasses its reputation, and sequences like the boxing match are unparalleled hilarity. A great and beautiful film, certainly among the dozen best ever made.”
This was long before I saw Buster Keaton’s Battling Butler (1926), in which Buster does a boxing match that is ten times as funny as Chaplin’s, and from which Charlie certainly borrowed. And today I would perhaps rate Chaplin’s first feature, The Kid (1921), at a higher level of perfection than City Lights. (In its day, The Kid became the highest grossing film since Griffith’s epoch-making The Birth of A Nation of 1915.) Nevertheless, the concluding scene of City Lights, in which the blind girl—-her sight now restored thanks to the Tramp’s sacrifices—-first sees her unknown benefactor, is still extraordinarily touching. Author-critic James Agee called the concluding shot of Charlie looking hopefully at her, with a flower to his mouth, “the highest moment in movies,” and this certainly (at least from an acting perspective) remains a valid judgment.