Chaplin has another good picture. The three-year period since “The Circus” and sound will give “City Lights” a percentage of “novelty money,” in that it contains no dialog. And it’s Chaplin–which has come to mean an hysterical press. These factors ought to total heavy b.o. receipts, but the film isn’t so strong that there isn’t some doubt concerning its holdover power.
In turning out his pictures so infrequently Chaplin pays the penalty of being rated by the trade on the problematical strength of his product over a series of weeks in one house. His past record and popularity insure dynamic first week figures, even were the picture but fair. “City Lights” gives indications of being short winded and may tire fast after a bombastic initial seven days.
It’s not Chaplin’s best picture, because the comedian has sacrificed speed to pathos, and plenty of it. This is principally the reason for the picture running some 1,500 or more feet beyond any previous film released by him. But the British comic is still the consummate pantomimist, unquestionably one of the greatest the stage or screen has ever known.
Certain sequences in “City Lights” are hilarious. Perhaps the high spot is a burlesque prize fight which in rehearsal time alone must have taken weeks to shoot. Chaplin’s feat is making this passage not only stand up but stand out behind recent features which have had some pretty funny ring fight stuff themselves.
What actually appears to be the only original piece of business is a cigar bit between Harry Myers and Chaplin at a table, and excellent. Otherwise the comedian is his usual tramp self going through an aquatic suicide attempt, also with Myers, and appearing for brief footage as a street cleaner to anticipated gags.
Probably the smartest thing is the manner in which the picture has been chopped off. All through Chaplin schemes how to procure money for a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill). Finally getting enough to pay off the girl’s landlord and permit an operation, the continuity leaps to the girl, with her sight restored, running a flower shop. The comic, released from jail, shambles along the street. In front of the shop he becomes the brunt of bean-blowing newsboys. The girl is attracted to the window by the rumpus and Chaplin sees her. She comes outside to give him a flower and recognizes him through the touch of his hands in the exchange. And as Chaplin gazes at her worshipfully, while fearing what she’ll think because of his threadbare and torn appeal, the picture ends.
Script is something of a fable in discovering the comic asleep in the lap of a statue when it is unveiled and then having him in and out of trouble through the means of a millionaire (Harry Myers), whom Chaplin prevents from a drunken suicide, and who thereafter only recognizes the comic when drunk. A great piece of business is a twist to a butt snatching item which has Chaplin, expelled from the millionaire’s home, getting a whiff of a pedestrian’s cigar and hopping into the parked roadster to follow the cigar owner, leap from the car, beat another poacher to the butt, and then climb back into the Rolls to drive away.
The lax memory of Myers after giving Chaplin $1,000 and then sobered into forgetfulness by a thug’s blackjack, is the means of getting the comedian to prison as also the background for him posing as of wealth to the blind girl.
It can be imagined how much stuff has been tossed away in getting this picture down to its present length, after spasmodically shooting on it over a period of 18 months or more. Chaplin’s pantomime remains superb and there is many a gem mixed up in the running. As previously, Chaplin mainly paints in broad strokes, with his most subtle maneuvering here being the sly turning of the sympathy away from the girl to himself as the picture draws to a close.
Comedian has given his latest a fast start by poking fun at talking pictures through simulating the voices of the speakers at the unveiling by musical instruments. He also takes credit for composing the score, which has as its theme Raquei Meller’s “Violets.”
Cast support is minor other than in Myers, who does exceptionally well in foiling the star. Miss Cherrill is very fair of face but demands upon her are not enough to permit rating other than expected.
Chaplin making a silent is merely sticking to his last. He never talked on the stage when in vaudeville before going into pictures, and, having made himself the foremost exponent of pantomime the world knows today, there doesn’t appear any reason why he should talk. With his ability to create and take familiar situations to make them look differently he can go on making successful silent films until he chooses to retire–so long as they entertain.
Talkers have not affected Chaplin and neither will he affect talkers. There will always be room for a Chaplin. He doesn’t make bad pictures because he has the talent, time and means as a safeguard. There was no one like him before in pictures, and since sound came in that is double true. The only thing sound can do to a silent Chaplin is, perhaps, make him slightly less important in the general public eye as time goes on.
It is also probably true that a good comedy by anyone, silent or talking, will always be salable while there remains a theatre screen for it.