AFI Catalog of Feature Films
Movie Detail
Name Occurs Before Title Offscreen Credit Print Viewed By AFI
City Lights
Director: Charles Chaplin (Dir)
Release Date:   7 Mar 1931
Premiere Information:   Los Angeles premiere: 30 Jan 1931; New York premiere: 6 Feb 1931
Production Date:   began 27 Dec 1928
Duration (in mins):   87
Duration (in reels):   9
Print this page
Display Movie Summary

Available Formats
Facets DVD VHS LaserDisk
Image DVD VHS LaserDisk
Movies Unlimited DVD VHS LaserDisk

Cast:   Charlie Chaplin (A tramp)  
    Virginia Cherrill (A blind girl)  
    Florence Lee (Her grandmother)  
    Harry Myers (An eccentric millionaire)  
    Allan Garcia (His butler [James])  
    Hank Mann (A prizefighter)  
    Eddie Baker    
    Henry Bergman    

Summary: At an outdoor dedication ceremony, a tramp is discovered sleeping in the arms of a statue as it is being unveiled before a crowd. He is chased into the city, where he meets a beautiful, blind flower girl, and buys a flower with his last coin. That night, he stops a drunken man from drowning himself. Gratefully, the man invites him to his mansion, which is presided over by a snobby butler named James and they begin to drink. The millionaire and the tramp continue their revels at a nightclub. Early the next morning, when they return home, the millionaire drunkenly offers the tramp money and the use of his Rolls Royce. The tramp uses his windfalls to help the flower girl. Because she cannot see his shabby clothes, the girl thinks her benefactor is a wealthy young man. Determined to help her, the tramp returns to the mansion, but the millionaire has sobered up and does not recognize him, so the tramp takes a job cleaning streets and gives the girl and her grandmother what money he can. By accident the tramp finds out they are behind in their rent and that there is a doctor in Vienna who can cure blindness by an expensive operation. Needing money in a hurry to help his friends, the tramp agrees to participate in a crooked boxing match for a cut of the winning purse, but his crooked partner is replaced by a legitmate fighter, who knocks him cold. Out on the streets, the tramp runs into the millionaire, who is back from Europe. Drunk again, he gladly gives the tramp $1,000 for the operation, but two crooks see the transaction and rob them. The tramp calls the police, but by the time they arrive, the crooks have vanished and the police arrest the tramp. He runs away and manages to give the money to the girl before he is taken off to jail. The girl gets her operation and opens up a successful flower shop, imagining her benefactor in every rich young man who comes into the shop. When the tramp gets out of jail, he wanders into the shop by accident. Naturally, she does not recognize him, and laughingly offers him a flower and a coin. He refuses the money, but when she presses it into his hand, she recognizes him by the feel of his skin and is moved. 

Production Company: Charles Chaplin Productions  
Distribution Company: United Artists Corp.  
Director: Charles Chaplin (Dir)
  Harry Crocker (Asst dir)
  Henry Bergman (Asst dir)
  Albert Austin (Asst dir)
Writer: Charles Chaplin (Scr)
Photography: Rollie Totheroh (Photog)
  Gordon Pollock (Photog)
  Mark Marklatt (Photog)
Art Direction: Charles D. Hall (Settings)
Film Editor: Charles Chaplin (Film ed)
Music: Alfred Newman (Mus dir)
  Charles Chaplin (Mus comp)
  Arthur Johnston (Mus arr)
Production Misc: Carlyle Robinson (Press representative)
Country: United States
Language: English

Music: "Beautiful Wonderful Eyes," "Tomorrow the Sun Will Shine," "Happy Romance," "Promenade" and "Orientale" by Charles Chaplin.
Composer: Charles Chaplin

Copyright Claimant Copyright Date Copyright Number
Charles Chaplin 1/2/1931 dd/mm/yyyy LP2034

Physical Properties: b&w:
  Si: Si with mus soundtrack by Western Electric Sound System

Genre: Comedy-drama
Subjects (Major): Blindness
  Flower vendors
Subjects (Minor): Benefactors
  Eye surgery
  False arrests
  Street cleaners

Note: Onscreen credits refer to the film as a "comedy romance in pantomine." The premiere of City Lights opened the Los Angeles Theater. It was the first time a gala premiere was held in downtown Los Angeles rather than in Hollywood. Charles Chaplin attended, accompanied by Georgia Hale and Albert Einstein and his wife. According to his autobiography, Chaplin felt that the cinema was essentially a pantomimic art and that sound limited the actor's gestural expressions. When he began preparations for the film in 1928, he intended to release it as a completely silent film, but by 1931, talking pictures were so popular that he added a musical soundtrack. In an early scene, Chaplin makes fun of the tinny sound of early talking films by mimicking speaking voices with saxophones. According to modern sources, Chaplin felt that musical accompaniment should act as a counterpoint to the comedy of the film and used special sound effects in only a few scenes: the scene where he swallows a whistle; the voices of the officials at the beginning of the film; pistol shots; and the bells in the boxing ring. Modern sources credit Ted Reed with sound and recording.
       According to publicity material in the copyright files, Chaplin spent $1,500,000 of his own money in making the film. A river was built at Chaplin's studio, which covered an area of five acres and cost $15,000 to construct. Two streets representing a downtown business section were also constructed at a cost of $100,000. According to his autobiography, Chaplin was angered over United Artists' lack of pre-release publicity and decided to exhibit the picture himself. He spent his own money to rent the George M. Cohan Theater and took out half-page advertisments to publicize the fact. In its twelve-week run at the Cohan, the film made a net profit of over $400,000. It became one of the top moneymaking films of 1931 and was named to the NYT 's list of the ten best films of the year. The National Board of Review named it the best film of 1931. In 1991, City Lights was selected for inclusion on the National Film Registry, and in 2007, the picture was ranked 11th on AFI's 2007 100 Years…100 Movies--10th Anniversary Edition list of the greatest American films, moving up from the 76th position it held on AFI's 1997 list.
       When the film was re-released in 1950, it was banned in Memphis, TN by censor Lloyd T. Benford because of Chaplin's "immoral" character. This judgment resulted from several personal incidents that plagued Chaplin's career. Actress Joan Barry accused him in 1943 of fathering her child. Chaplin was initially acquitted on these charges when blood tests proved conclusively that he could not be the child's father, but the decision was overturned during a retrial in 1944. Also in 1944, Chaplin was indicted by a Federal grand jury on charges of violating the Mann Act, a law that makes it illegal to transport a woman across state lines for immoral purposes.
       Modern sources add the following information about the production: Allan Garcia, who plays James in the film, was also the casting director. Henry Clive was originally cast as the millionaire, but when he refused to fall into the water in a necessary scene, Chaplin fired him and hired Harry Myers. Modern sources note that at one point, Chaplin, displeased with Cherrill, thought of replacing her with Georgia Hale. Marian Marsh also tested for the part before Cherrill was asked to return. The exterior of the millionaire's house was shot at Town House on Wilshire Boulevard. Chaplin's former colleague from silent days, Albert Austin who is credited as assistant director, appears in the scene in which Chaplin mistakes a cheese sandwich for a bar of soap. 

Bibliographic Sources:   Date   Page
Film Daily   15 Feb 31   p. 10.
Motion Picture Herald   14 Feb 31   p. 68.
Motion Picture Herald   16 Mar 31   p. 22, 43
New York Times   7 Feb 31   p. 11.
Variety   11 Feb 31   p. 14.

Display Movie Summary
Advanced Search
Support our efforts to preserve hisotory of film
Help AFI Preserve Film History

© 2017 American Film Institute.
All rights reserved.
Terms of use.