Movie Double Take Reviews AFI's Greatest American Movies: #11: City Lights
We're reviewing every single movie in AFI's List of the 100 Greatest Movies of All Time. We'll tell you why they matter, how they hold up, if they belong on the list, and then re-rank the 100 movies by quality! Find the master-list here. Today, we're reviewing City Lights.
Release Date: 1931
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Writer: Charlie Chaplin
Run-time: 87 Minutes
How to Watch: Hulu Plus (Free with subscription)
"Fun" Fact: The last living actor to appear in City Lights died in 2007.
Historical Context: At the time Charlie Chaplin started working on City Lights, 1928, he was a well-established star of the silent film era. However, the silent film era had already come to a close, and most of film had converted to the sound era. Chaplin was expected to follow suit, but he had enough popularity and fame to continue releasing silent films. (It's said that he thought "talkies" were a fad). However, two enormous factors stopped this from being a routine film production for Chaplin. Being that we live in the future, you can probably guess at both of them.
- Unless the only film you've seen in the last seventy-five years is The Artist, you're probably aware that talkies were not a fad. In fact, almost all of the movies these days have sound and people talking in them. Midway into production, Chaplin came to the same conclusion. He shutdown production and brainstormed ways to incorporate sound. Ultimately, the film would remain what we consider a silent film, but did utilize recorded music (and occasional sound effects).
- Midway into production, the Wall Street crash of 1929 occurred. This turned out to be a pretty big deal and hindered production; the film wouldn't be finished and released until 1931. It's difficult to discern how much of the film had been conceived prior to the arrival of the Great Depression, but some of the film's dark humor certainly feels post-depression. One of the "comical scenes" features Harry trying to prevent a man from committing suicide only to accidentally get tied up in his noose.
So, there were clearly obstacles standing in the way of success, but great art is often made in the face of adversity, and City Lights has gone on to be remembered as Chaplin's greatest film. Chaplin himself considered it his best work, and Woody Allen, Orson Welles, and Stanley Kubrick all listed it among their favorite films of all time.
Review: Comedy tends to have a harder time at withstanding the aging process than any other genre. Scary things can retain their creepiness (even if they lose their shock value), sad things generally stay sad, and dramatic moments can hold on to their power. But humor is such a product of the time that it often doesn't translate to a different era. Ask anyone born after 1985 to explain why the famous "Cheeseburger, Cheeseburger" sketch from Saturday Night Live is funny. I wasn't entirely confident that City Lights would hold up, given how dated comedies from a decade ago seem today. While the film didn't make me laugh out loud ever, it is consistently charming and impressive. So many gag scenes are constructed with so much wit and ingenuity, it's easy to admire them nearly 90 years later.
Most people who praise the film praise it not only as a comedy, but as a love story (between Chaplin's Tramp and a blind woman), and frankly this feels like a reach to justify the significance of what is mostly a collection of comical scenes loosely tied together with a narrative. Their love story is charming in the way an old Looney Tunes short about Porky and Petunia Pig is, but it's hardly emotionally resonant or deep. Maybe I'm just heartless.
In general, I found myself admiring the movie, while never feeling entirely invested in it. It's an enjoyable experience, and each scene leaves you wondering what imaginative gag Chaplin will introduce next, but it never quite came together as a cohesive film. Still, there's plenty to enjoy.
Does it deserve a place on AFI's 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time? Yes, it's a historically significant movie that represents the pinnacle of a long-gone style of film, and is still immensely watchable today.
Is it One of My 100 Favorite Movies of All Time? No.
Must-See, Worth Watching, or Pass: Worth watching.
How does it rank among the other films in the AFI's Top 100 Greatest Films of All Time?
#1: City Lights (only one reviewed so far).