City Lights

Movie Information

The Asheville Film Society will screen City Lights Tuesday, Feb. 15, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of the Carolina Asheville, and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther. Hanke is the artistic director of the Asheville Film Society.
Score:

Genre: Comedy with Pathos
Director: Charles Chaplin
Starring: Charles Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Harry Myers
Rated: NR

There’s really no such thing as Chaplin’s best film—maybe his five or six best—but City Lights (1931) is probably as close as you’re going to get to that default title. What is there left to say about this story of the little tramp who sacrifices everything for love of a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) who thinks he’s a millionaire? Probably not much—except that if you’ve never seen it, your cinematic education is wanting. And if you have seen it, it’s worth seeing again. It is probably Chaplin’s most perfect blend of comedy and pathos. Since Chaplin distrusted talkies and felt that sound would kill the appeal of his Tramp character, he steadfastly insisted on making City Lights as a silent, but he didn’t entirely eschew sound. Not only did it allow him the solution to why the girl thinks the Tramp’s a millionaire, but it allowed him to compose and control the music for the film’s soundtrack—managing to get the best of both worlds, and have a huge hit at a time when the talkies were ruling the day.

Chaplin is a key figure in film history. Along with D.W. Griffith, he was the first filmmaker who could truly be called an artist—but he was an artist whose greatest instrument was his own screen persona. Part of the joy and genius of Chaplin lies in watching him move—and not just his Tramp character, but any character. Even in his later films, it’s always Chaplin—always his movements, expression, body language—who you can’t take your eyes off. Check out the 68-year-old Chaplin in A King in New York (1957).  It’s impossible not to watch him in fascinated admiration. One need only look at his last film, the much maligned (and unfairly so) A Countess from Hong Kong (1967). There he kept himself offscreen and tried to turn both Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren into versions of himself and his movements. They give it a game try, but they’re simply not Chaplin.

He was also unique among the silent comedians in that he was neither afraid of sentiment and drama, nor was he afraid of ideas. This aspect played against him in the 1970s when the silent comics were being seriously reassessed. Chaplin’s Dickensian sense of pathos was seen as old-fashioned, while Keaton’s impassive, almost surreal comedy looked more modern to many people. I never got that. Keaton always struck me—and continues to strike me—as marvelously clever. I marvel at that cleverness, but I rarely laugh and I certainly never feel anything. With Chaplin I laugh and I feel something. Maybe that’s because I got to see all his work from 1918 through 1957 on the big screen and with an audience, but it’s true in any case.

See for yourself. City Lights is a great place to start, if you’re a novice, but then so would The Gold Rush (1925), The Circus (1928), or Modern Times (1936) be. And those could be followed nicely with his later—more idea-driven—works: The Great Dictator (1940), Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Limelight (1952), and A King in New York (1957). Oh, hell, they all should be seen.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

8 thoughts on “City Lights

  1. TonyRo

    This is one of those films that really gets me at the end, tears every time. My favorite Chaplin movie and maybe my favorite ending.

  2. Ken Hanke

    The ending is an amazing thing, though my favorite Chaplin movie tends to be whatever one I saw last (1925-1957 era).

  3. Nathan M.

    Will this screening be a print or a DVD? I’d prefer to see Modern Times, or some Keaton, but I’ll take what I can get.

  4. Ken Hanke

    DVD. You’re not going to see many prints being used for this type of screening these days. And, honestly, good DVD projection is frequently better than the 16mm prints from the good old days.

  5. Nathan M.

    That’s unfortunate. I’ll be there anyway to check it out. Chaplin’s films have recently been restored on 35mm, so I wondered if perhaps the Film Society had access to one of those. I would be really cool to see a good digital projection of “Modern Times” on the recently released Criterion Blu-Ray.

  6. Ken Hanke

    Chaplin’s films have recently been restored on 35mm, so I wondered if perhaps the Film Society had access to one of those.

    It’s really odd to find 35mm restorations being done these days. Last year’s Metropolis. for example, was available for exhibition as a digital “print” or on Blu-ray. Tommy was available only in digital. Of course, then you’re talking about booking a film for an actual theatrical showing and that’s expensive, which is why those weren’t free showings.

    I would be really cool to see a good digital projection of “Modern Times” on the recently released Criterion Blu-Ray.

    That actually is in the cards. When possible, the AFS does use Blu-ray as the source, e.g. The Fall, Tetro, Night of the Hunter. Keep watching. Modern Times will happen, though not right away.

  7. Nathan M.

    I just moved from Chicago to Asheville. Chicago is probably a better market for 35mm screenings. I actually had the chance to see The Complete Metropolis, which was incredible, though I’m sure Kino’s BD edition corrects some of the aperture issues that they had with the original film elements. At any rate, I’m looking forward to the “City Lights” screening; it’ll be my third time seeing this one. I think I’ll try the “Carrie” screening that’s coming up, too.

  8. Ken Hanke

    I just moved from Chicago to Asheville. Chicago is probably a better market for 35mm screenings.

    You have a much larger population to draw from in Chicago, so it stands to reason.

    I actually had the chance to see The Complete Metropolis, which was incredible, though I’m sure Kino’s BD edition corrects some of the aperture issues that they had with the original film elements.

    I haven’t seen the home release, but I doubt those ratio changes are fixed. We ran from the Blu-ray disc — Kino only offered the complete version theatrically on a digital hard-drive and Blu-ray (no 35mm prints were available) — and the changes in ratio were part of it. (We chose Blu-ray because no one at Kino could tell us if the digital version was pillar-boxed and we knew would could control that from Blu-ray, and we didn’t want the top and bottom cut off.) I don’t imagine they mastered it twice.

    At any rate, I’m looking forward to the “City Lights” screening; it’ll be my third time seeing this one. I think I’ll try the “Carrie” screening that’s coming up, too.

    Introduce yourself. Justin and I are usually there by 7 p.m. Bear in mind, we have a small screening room. We’re tight with 70, though we have managed to cram about 90 in there — with extra chairs and people sitting on the floor. I spent Night of the Hunter leaning against the bar. I’m not expecting that kind of turnout for this, but I’ve given up predicting how many people will show up for what. (I never imagined 83 people showing up for the 1931 Frankenstein.) In other words, it’s wise to be there kind of early. We’re not Chicago, but we’re doing the best we can with what we have to work with — and we’re less than a year old. These showings are free, but a membership — which is only ten bucks a year — gets you perks at several local businesses (and a dollar off regular admissions at The Carolina), including free screenings of some “art” titles a couple of days before they open to the public, e.g., I Am Love, Ondine, The Extra Man, Tamara Drewe, Another Year.

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