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On Jan. 30, 1931, United Artists unveiled the silent film City Lights, written, directed and produced by Charlie Chaplin. In a front page story on the same day the film was reviewed, The Hollywood Reporter declared that Chaplin “pulled a fast one on the industry. Not only is there no word spoken in his latest film, City Lights, but he makes use of the precious sound invention to mimic and burlesque the talkies and makes it the best gag of the picture.” THR’s original review, titled “‘City Lights’ A Cinch For Big Money Everywhere,” is below:
Exhibs can start warming up the old cash registers right now. It’s not that the picture is a world-beater — it isn’t. But it is very funny; it has Charles Chaplin; it has aroused the curiosity of everyone; it has plenty of entertainment value for the kids; it will bring forth many who have steadfastly refused to become talkie fans; and it has enough in it to satisfy them and to recommend it for everyone to see.
The picture follows closely the set lines of most of Charlies former opuses. Chaplin is again the wistful, amusing tramp. Here he falls in love with a beautiful, blind flower vendor. He meets a wealthy eccentric in his cups, who has a violent suicide complex when drunk. Charlie saves his life and becomes his friend — for the moment — for when the wealthy one recovers his sobriety, he can’t remember or recognize the tramp.
The flower girl becomes ill and the tramp takes it upon himself to provide for her. Of course, he gets into all kinds of scrapes and messes in order to get money, but get it he does and enough to pay for a cure that will restore the girl’s eyesight. And the fadeout is where the girl recognizes the tramp as her benefactor and takes it kindly.
Chaplin has opened his picture with a knockout blow. The first gag is the best and takes an awful sock at the talkies. Also there is a prize fight that is one of the funniest things seen in many a long day and worth the price of admission. Talk is not missed but the picture could have had a faster pace. Length is its drawback — not the lack of speech. There is, of course, sound accompaniment, and music, also composed by Mr. Chaplin, which is O.K. and serves its purpose nicely.
Chaplin is grand. He raises the status of the silent picture to the rank of an art through his pantomime. And his fans will thank him for being wise enough to have stayed in his place — a comic, slightly pathetic tramp whose every action is as eloquent, if not more so, than the spoken word. He has chosen for his leading lady a lovely blonde girl, Virginia Cherrill, who should go a long way in pictures — any variety of the species. Harry Myers, as the suicidal drunk, is highly amusing and makes a great silent comeback. Hank Mann contributes a funny moment as a professional pug.
Altogether there should be plenty of rejoicing along the movie front, for the picture will bring pleasure to a waiting world. — Staff review, originally published on Jan. 30, 1931.
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