City Lights by Charlie Chaplin (1931) is remembered for its heartwarming humour and renown for Chaplin’s stubbornness against the advent of sound technologies, or talkies.

The reasoning behind Chaplin’s robust resistance was his belief that the imperfect, crude technologies ‘would have trapped his films in sound stages and sets.’ (Roger Ebert, Charlie Chaplin). This was true as it turned out, if he had decided otherwise, the quality of his performance would have been compromised as he would have been to close to the camera in order to capture the audio.

However, ‘He did make minor concessions to the technology of the day by including an original score (composed by himself)’. (Jason Ihle, Classic Movie Review: Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights) In addition, in the opening scene where the mayor is about to unveil a statue, the speech he makes are all garbled noise, a gibberish evidently reflective of Chaplin’s opinion on the new sound technology.

Chaplin even employs some sound effects and incorporates them to be part of the joke. For instance, at a party he swallows a whistle and keeps tweeting accidentally, with the result of repeatedly interrupting a singer, attracting cabs and dogs. This innovative use of sound creates a lovely joke that’s ‘stretched just far enough to avoid becoming tiresome, and only partially reliant on the post-synched sound effect, which appropriately disrupts the musical soundtrack’. The interruptions bring attention to Charlie’s embarrassment as everyone suddenly stops and stares at him.


There are limited gags involving sound though, and most of the film pays tribute to the good old-fashioned physical and contextual humour of phantomine. For example, the Tramp often confuses objects with other things, such as how he eats a curly streamer after mistaking it for spaghetti, or trying to scoop out a bald man’s scalp after assuming it’s a dish of food.

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City Lights is set in the early 1900s, perhaps the first decade or two into the era of ascension of the middle class. For now though, economic disparity remains at large, the poor are just about destitute, and the rich are ridiculously wealthy with an opulence bordering on offensive. Indeed, the alcoholic Eccentric Millionaire embodies the bourgeois. He seems neurotically schizophrenic as he passes in and out of intoxicated brash whimsy, and moody sobriety. When drunk, he embraces Chaplin, gives him a tuxedo suit, treats him at a fancy restaurant- and when clear minded, has his butler toss him out on the streets. In one fit of particular euphoria, he gives away his car to Chaplin.

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Perhaps there’s the impending financial instability, the Great Depression of the 1930s, approaching- but City Lights gives no indication of such tribulation, apart from the Tramp’s general poverty, which is his characteristic, typical disposition. As a comedy after all, it should entertain and take the audience’s minds off the problems of the day, so it’s not absolutely necessary to bother with the truth. Chaplin does attempt to reflect reality though,  as far as the social caste and society’s disdain toward the poor is concerned; but more than that, he exaggerates it for the purpose of humour in his films, as exampled by the absurd behaviour of the millionaire, and Chaplin’s even funnier charade as a rich man for his blind flower girl.

This pretense is not exclusively for her though, Chaplin also does his best to act according to the principles and etiquette that govern the upper class, with comedic results as he fails. A prominent instance of his awkwardness in such social situations is on the dance floor of the restaurant, where seeing all the couples engage in a dance, Chaplin randomly grabs a lady, not knowing she already has a partner!


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Nowadays, pantomine is rare and physical humour is glanced upon as a lower class of comedy, preceded by intellectual, situational, satirical or even black  comedy, with many alternatives and variations. Perhaps that is why it is now largely limited, or at least found in, children’s programs-like the numerous vigorous physical mishaps in Disney’s Tom & Jerry, or more recently, Nickelodeon’s Spongebob Squarepants.

But pantomine isn’t dead; one exception to the norm is the series, Mr Bean-which combines both character comedy and pantomine, played by Rowan Attkinson. It is about ‘a childish and self-centred buffoon who brings various unusual schemes and contrivances to everyday tasks.’ (Wikipedia) In this show, the character rarely has any dialogue either, but that’s where any similarity to Charlie Chaplin’s character ends. Mr Bean is prone to pettiness, and even malevolence as the humour originates from his absurd solutions to problems ‘and his total disregard for others when solving them’. As a result, the film lacks the affirmative elegance that made the Tramp such an endearing, charming and quaint character.

<added on>Some of the film techniques seen in City Lights include brightly lit scenes and gradual to fast horizontal panning ( eg. fast horizontal panning from Chaplin to the blind girl at 9:25 ). The sequence of City Lights is clearly separated into different chapters when the picture fades out and flashes a title.  Jump cuts were utilized to readjust the frame (see below).Screen Shot 2013-07-08 at 8.30.27 AM

From mid shot to wide angle shot.

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, the author of movielistmania.blogspot.sg ( given links in your references), mentioned that “There are occasional editing lapses where the continuity of the cuts create mild confusion.” and “He also relies too heavily at times on inter-titles where more precise and subtle story developments could have been achieved through action alone.”

Perhaps I’m (katie) so used to living in a world of confusion. I feel that Story of City Lights has a rather smooth transition thanks to the titles and quoted conversations between Chaplin and the characters. I also find the cleverly synchronized music played in the background convey the emotion of characters effectively. With that, i disagree with Jason Ihle, because precise and subtle story developments can also be achieved through music alone.

City Lights is one of those hallmarks in history that serve as a gentle reminder that sometimes, refraining from hurtling headlong into the new will have better results. Charlie Chaplin created and embodied a character that audiences loved and supported because of his ‘kind and generous heart’.

‘Chaplin makes us see the very best of what we want from ourselves in him and so we empathize very deeply with the character.’ (Jason Ihle, Classic Movie Review: Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights)

That is why is City Lights, and Chaplin, is timeless, and will be remembered fondly forever.


Ebert, Roger. City Lights. 1972. [online] Accessed 23 June.

North, Dan. Pantomining Chaplin’s City Lights. 2009. [online] Accessed 23 June.

Ihle, Jason. Classic Movie Review: Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights. 2012. [online]. Accessed 23 June.

Wikipedia. Mr Bean. [online] Accessed 23 June.

About the author: Ilene is a writer who likes City Lights, and country nights-provided there are no bugs involved. Or strange men.


3 thoughts on “City de-Lights

  1. Great essay written by Ilene. You’re able to clearly illustrate your points with sufficient visuals and examples. Although i find it a little bit hard to understand some tough vocabulary of yours, I like how you link back to modern pantomime which are still adored by many of us today. I’ve added a few film technique that you might have missed out ^^

  2. Ilene! Great essay you have here! Perhaps you can include that City Lights was the second entry in the Carnegie Theater’s seven-part Chaplin Festival, part of a worldwide tribute to Chaplin, and the influence that this film had on other filmmakers.

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