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City Lights, Charlie Chaplin Shines Bright

Updated on November 13, 2013
The tramp and the flower girl
The tramp and the flower girl

The Sublime Peak of a Magnificent Career.

City Lights is generally regarded as Charlie Chaplin's greatest film and represents the peak of his achievement and reputation. It tells the deceptively simple story of Chaplin's famous little tramp character who befriends a lovely flower girl and earns money to help her afford surgery to restore her sight. The movie offers a combination of pathos, slapstick and comedy and shows Chaplin's comic, acting and artistic genius at its finest.

Although it was released three years after the start of the Talkies era Chaplin decided to make the film a 'Silent'. It includes a complete musical soundtrack and various sound effects - but no speech or dialogue. Incredibly, Chaplin's film was not nominated for a single Academy Award - to the pro-talking film Academy members, it must have appeared to be reversing the trend toward talkies and advanced sound films.

Chaplin was responsible for the film's production, direction, editing, music, and screenplay.

The AFI recently ranked this #76 on their list of the 100 greatest American movies of all time. Orson Welles had called it his favorite film of all time, while in the mid-‘60s, Stanley Kubrick placed it at #5 on his list of favorites. It's viewed by many others as the quintessential Chaplin film, a masterpiece in slapstick comedy, romance and pantomime. An absolute gem.

Chaplin in 'City Lights'


Plot Summary

A deceptively simple plot gives ample opportunity for both sublime comic invention and pathos.

Chaplin's little tramp character comes upon a blind flower-seller. He is moved by her pathos and beauty, while the chance slamming of a car door leads her to believe he must be a rich man.

That evening he dissuades an erratic and alcoholic millionaire from suicide. This new acquaintance proves an affectionate and generous friend when drunk, but distant and hostile in his sober moods, the morning after. Finding the flower girl absent from her place on the street corner, the Tramp visits the poor room where she lives. He learns that she is ill, but that a costly operation in Switzerland could restore her sight. In an effort to raise the money for the unpaid rent on her apartment he takes various odd jobs such as a street cleaner and as a prize fighter. In a series of comedy adventures that only Chaplin could pull off, he eventually succeeds, even though his efforts land him in jail.

Months later he is released, and by chance passes an elegant flower shop in which the now-cured flower girl is established, always hoping to meet her benefactor whom she supposes to be rich and handsome. She is amused by the passing vagrant, takes pity on him, and gives him a flower and a coin. Pressing them into his hand, she recognises him by touch. The two gaze enigmatically into each other's eyes. It is a classic and fitting climax and one of the sublime moments of cinema,

The Boxing Match

A Comic Masterpiece

Even without the attractive main storyline the movie can stand alone as great comedy. The Tramp's inebriated visit to a danceclub, where he confuses party string for pasta, then gets a bit saucy and whirls a woman around the dance floor until he falls down, is brilliant.

The boxing sequence - with Chaplin, the ref and a prizefighter moving in perfect comic synchronization - is a big highlight. I defy anyone to watch it and not laugh out loud.

Even more hilarious is the scene where the Tramp swallows a whistle and disrupts a recital with his chirping hiccups. He removes himself from polite society, but ends up attracting every dog in the neighborhood and busts up the performance when he runs back in.

Comedy in Every Situation

Interviews with 2 Flower girls and Sydney Chaplin

The Final Scene


The Tramp functions as a savior and wish-fulfiller for the blind flower girl while masquerading as a wealthy duke. For the drunk millionaire, the Tramp repeatedly saves the man's life and provides a congenial friend.

The film's theme concerns the consequences (and suffering) resulting from the Tramp's attachment and efforts to aid the blind girl (and restore her sight with money for an operation) and the millionaire, as he persuades both of them that life is worth living. Both characters at first cannot "see" him or recognize him for what he is.

It is Chaplin's genius that enbles him to present sucn an uplifting, almost moralistic tale and make us weep with both sadness and laughter almost in the same moment.


Charles Chaplin ... A Tramp (as Charlie Chaplin)
Virginia Cherrill ... A Blind Girl
Florence Lee ... The Blind Girl's Grandmother
Harry Myers ... An Eccentric Millionaire
Al Ernest Garcia ... The Eccentric Millionaire's Butler
Hank Mann ... A Prizefighter

Director ... Charles Chaplin
Producer ... Charles Chaplin
Production Company ... Charles Chaplin Productions
Story and Screenplay ... Charles Chaplin
Initial Release ... 1 March, 1931
Running Time ... 87 minutes


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    • GmaGoldie profile image

      Kelly Kline Burnett 7 years ago from Madison, Wisconsin

      Charlie Chaplin invented comedy. I never cared for the man until I learned how actors hold him in high esteem. Then I learned how he was not allowed back into the US. Then I learned he wrote one of my favorite songs - Smile.

      The tramp was uplifting, his song Smile is uplifting. You are right, he is truly a genius which was both uplifting and "moralistic". He is a pilgrim of peace we all should be aware of.

      I first came to know Charlie when I wrote Pilgrim of Peace, later when Ironman lead star celebrated Charlie's genius.

      Chaplins museum in Switzerland will open in 2011. Sadly, the museum is not here in the US because our government wouldn't allow him back. I beleive firmly that today with the Internet this would not happen.

      Knowledge is power. Learning history, learning art is critical. You are making a great contribution.

      Beautiful hub - thank you!

    • MrMarmalade profile image

      MrMarmalade 10 years ago from Sydney

      We had the joy of seeing a silent movie at CHRISTMAS. i BROUGHT SO MANY MEMORIES BACK.

      THANk YOU FOR YOU for NEW ONES TO Dwell on.