Written by Jay Evans.
City Lights is one of the most creative films of all time, and director, Charlie Chaplin is without a doubt an inspiration to many. He is one of the best and most sophisticated director’s in history.
His style, humorously simplistic yet powerful, has been the cornerstone of many future, aspiring directors decades later, teaching them the true art of film.
The story tells of a tramp (Chaplin) who stumbles across a young, sweet blind girl who mistakes him for a millionaire. At first he plays along but then finds himself becoming chummy with an actual rich man who, although having it all, does not know true happiness.
Through these new relationships The Tramp, in turn, discovers the real meaning of selfless love, even to the point of giving up his freedom on the street in order to provide sight for his blind beauty.
Constantly the film portrays perfect storytelling through the visuals. Like other silent films the story uses title cards when necessary, but even then, there was only a small amount of these that were needed to display a simple, yet powerful message.
What films lack these days is an understanding of visual storytelling. When narrative film began there was no option for audio, forcing the filmmakers to tell their stories with creative visuals. City Lights portrayed this perfectly. It didn’t need dialogue.
The disadvantage brought about by the deceiving beauty of audio was that audiences were being told what was happening through dialogue. Charlie Chaplin did not want to spoonfeed his audience and let audio devour the greatness of simplistic visuals.
Sound does in fact have a part to play in telling a story so Chaplin didn’t completely cut it out. More so than just using a backing instrumental track he used various sound effects and foley in a creative way. In one of the beginning scenes he uses a kazoo to represent the empty words of three wealthy characters congratulating each other in front of a statue they are about to unveil.
He also includes the ding of a bell during the boxing match and the sound of a cowbell when a rock is dropped onto The Tramp’s foot during his first meeting with the millionaire.
The story of City Lights was simple, but what went on behind the scenes during production was anything but simple. It was shot in the midst of the beginnings of a new era – ‘The Talkies’.
Although this new trend in film was the next best thing, Chaplin held strong to his goal of creating another silent film, despite being ridiculed by critics. The genre of Silent Film was soon coming to an end due to public demands of only sound pictures.
During production, Chaplin was relentless in his goal to perfectly tell this story. He knew exactly what he wanted and wouldn’t stop until he achieved success.
The scene in which the tramp has his first meeting with the blind girl, was shot over 300 times, and during production he even fired the main actress as he accused her of being unprofessional. In the end, however, she was rehired, due to so much of the production already being completed.
The other reason he made the decision to bring her back was that she was young and naive – the very character she needed to play. Employing a more seasoned actress would have been a mistake as there was a possibility of overacting and overcomplicating the character. The simplicity of the blind girls character was a huge part of correctly telling the story.
The story was set in the middle of the city – hence City Lights – an increasingly unforgiving place in the 1930’s, which is more of the reason Chaplin endeavoured on his quest to tell a simple story of love and hope in the midst of the city chaos.
When the film was released in 1931 the audience roared its approval, proving that a film does not need words in order to communicate a good story.
No matter how new or outdated the style of film is, it’s always important to tell a good story, and storytelling through visuals isn’t just a suggestion, it’s a necessity.
City Lights was, and still is a triumph in the world of cinema, and filmmakers today are still being taught by one of the greats.
Although Chaplin has long gone, his legacy has not. 86 years on, his last silent film City Lights is still a perfect story of powerful love, hope and selflessness. It’s light in dialogue yet powerful in theme and the humour is universal, providing a way for the audience to relate to the story as a whole.
I would highly recommend it to anyone seeking inspiration, whether it be in film or just in personal development as the story speaks to the heart of anyone who chooses to embrace it.