City Lights

City Lights Study Guide

In 1928, Charlie Chaplin's The Circus was released to positive reviews. However, things were starting to change, as silent films were getting replaced with "talkies"—movies with sound. The first talking picture, called The Jazz Singer, was released in 1927, and many predicted that the silent film would soon become irrelevant. In the midst of this shifting cinematic landscape, the auteur Charlie Chaplin released City Lights, a film that is often cited as his crowning achievement, and a quintessential example of the charms and strengths of silent film.

The film was a struggle to make, and between writing the script, filming, editing, and release, three years elapsed. It was the longest production process for any Charlie Chaplin film. City Lights (1931) tells the story of a hapless but resilient tramp and his love for a blind flower girl on the streets of a city. Hoping to help the girl as she struggles to survive, the Tramp goes through a series of trials, including a comically inconsistent friendship with a drunken, suicidal millionaire, a brief boxing career, and an eventual wrongful arrest and imprisonment. By the end, he is reunited with his beloved flower girl, and we are left with the iconic image of a disheveled tramp smiling at a sweet and innocent flower girl.

Upon its release, City Lights was met with positive reviews. Wrote The Los Angeles Examiner: "Not since I reviewed the first Chaplin comedies way back in the two-reel days has Charlie given us such an orgy of laughs." In 2007, the American Film Institute ranked City Lights 11th on its list of the best American films ever made. In 1991 it was inducted into the United States National Film Registry for its cultural, historical, or aesthetic significance. Chaplin's last silent film, City Lights will be remembered as his true masterpiece.