City Lights (1931)

City Lights

Black & white, Silent

Released: 1931

Rated: G

Length: 87 min.

Age:  6+           commonsense.org sez:  8

Scary factor:  Guns are brandished, especially during burglary, but more for comedic effect – no harm is done.

Violence:  General slapstick knock-about humour. The Tramp is (cleanly) knocked unconscious in the boxing ring.

Questionable behaviour: drinking and drunken behaviour (including reckless driving) for humour; smoking cigars; wealthy drunk friend is suicidal in several instances

Interests: silent movies, history, city life, love story, money and class

Next: The Gold Rush, Modern Times, Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Junior


The Tramp falls in love with a blind flower seller. Through a misunderstanding she thinks he is rich, and he goes along with the deception. When the girl is in danger of being evicted, he does everything he can to help her. In the end, with no small amount of self-sacrifice, he is able to bankroll a sight-restoring operation for her, thanks to his friendship with a wealthy but extremely unstable drunkard.

A series of misadventures and brilliantly conceived turns of fate befall Chaplin’s Tramp in this film, which took him three full years to shoot. There are several terrific set-pieces: the unveiling of a statue to reveal him asleep in its lap, his attempts to prevent a man from jumping in the river, their drunken shenanigans at a nightclub, and an amazingly choreographed boxing sequence. And as well, a heartbreaking story with a beautiful final scene. (No spoilers here, but the movie ends happily.)

‘Adult’ aspects of the story, such as the clinically depressed, drunken, suicidal rich man whom the Tramp helps and befriends (but who never remembers who he is the next day), are presented with a light tough and generally milked for laughs. For example, the Tramp prevents the Rich Man from drowning, but of course ends up in the water himself… several times. (Another note: If you object to ‘drunks are funny’ comedy, you won’t enjoy a large portion of this film.)

One strong theme that should be interesting for all is how differently people are treated when they have (or don’t have) money. When Chaplin is in the company of the Rich Man, and dressed well, he is treated royally, but as soon as the Rich Man doesn’t know him any more he is quickly turfed back out onto the street.

My favourite gag of all is when the Tramp, searching the sidewalk for a butt to smoke, spots a man walk past smoking a cigar. The Tramp hops in the Rich Man’s car to follow him… When the cigar butt is finally tossed to the curb, the Tramp leaps out of the luxury automobile and pushes aside a homeless man to get to it first.

As always with silent films, you will have to read the title cards to younger children, and explain some of the situations (misunderstandings, the rich man’s amnesia, boxing for money), but the emotional core of the movie is extremely accessible, as the Tramp wears his love for the blind girl on his sleeve.

In conclusion: A masterpiece of the silent era. Don’t be scared off by the moments of questionable behaviour – this film has great heart and emotion, which should play to all ages. (This is rated for age 6, rather than younger, mostly for reasons of plot comprehension.)

(This DVD available at amazon.com)

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.
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