City Lights (1931): Chaplin’s Poignant, Eloquent Fable

Charlie Chaplin began making City Lights as a silent film, but the new revolutionary technology of sound changed everything. Chaplin decided to finish the film as a silent, but added musical score and some sound effects.

Grade: A (***** out of *****)

City Lights
City Lights (1931 theatrical poster - retouched).jpg

Plating his typical role, the Little Tramp, Chaplin meets a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill), who somehow believes that the poor tramp is a millionaire.

Meanwhile, the tramp rescues a genuine millionaire (Harry Myers) from committing suicide. When drunk, the millionaire treats the tramp as a friend and equal, but when sober, he doesn’t even recognize him.

The two subplots are merged, when the tramp attempts to raise enough money for the blind girl for an eye operation.

The film contains many good sequences, such as a boxing between Chaplin and the muscle-bound Hank Mann.

City Lights marked the first time Chaplin composed the score to his production, and it was written in six weeks with Arthur Johnston. The main theme, a leitmotif for the blind flower girl, is the song “La Violetera” (“Who’ll Buy my Violets”) from Spanish composer José Padilla. Chaplin lost a lawsuit to Padilla for not crediting him.

Last Reel (Spoiler Alert)

The final scene, in which the now-sighted flower girl sees her benefactor for the first time, is genuinely touching. In 1949, noted film critic James Agee declared it to be “the greatest single piece of acting ever committed to celluloid.”

The Tramp happens by the shop, where the girl is arranging flowers in the window. He stoops to retrieve a flower discarded in the gutter. The girl has been watching him, without knowing who he is, and he gets frozen, before breaking into broad smile. Flattered, she giggles, “I’ve made a conquest!” Through the glass she offers him a fresh flower to replace the crushed one he took from the gutter and a coin.

Embarrassed, the Tramp shuffles away, but the girl again offers the flower, which he shyly accepts. She takes his hand and gets puzzled as she recognizes his touch. She runs her fingers along his arm, then asks, “You?” The Tramp nods, “You can see now?” The girl replies, “Yes, I can see now” and presses his hand to her heart. Elated, the Tramp smiles back.

Critical Status

Some critics consider this eloquent and poignant tale as one of Chaplin’s very best works. In 1991, the Library of Congress selected City Lights for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” In 2007, the American Film Institute (AFI) ranked it 11th on its list of the best American films ever made.

Commercial Appeal:

The movie, the top-grossing film in the US in 1931, was hugely popular all over the world.

Virginia Cherrill as a blind girl
Florence Lee as her grandmother
Harry Myers as an eccentric millionaire
Al Ernest Garcia as his butler (credited as Allan Garcia)
Hank Mann as a prizefighter
Charlie Chaplin as A Tramp


Produced, directed, written by Charlie Chaplin
Music by Charlie Chaplin, Flower Girl’s theme by José Padilla

Orchestrated by Arthur Johnston and Alfred Newman
Cinematography Roland Totheroh, Gordon Pollock
Edited by Charlie Chaplin, Willard Nico
Distributed by United Artists

Release date: January 30, 1931

Running time: 87 minutes
Budget $1.5 million
Box office $4.25 million

DVD: February 8, 2000