City Lights is the work of three years’ spasmodic but concentrated imaginative effort by a sensitive and exceptionally brilliant creative artist. Its humor is perfected by a hundred small touches that have taken many months to find their correct expression.
Below its surface lies an age-old theme retold with fresh beauty and sentiment, a theme that has perhaps lain dormant in Chaplin’s mind for many years and has now found its fulfillment. Into this film the man has put his last ounce of mental energy and probably the greater part of his financial earnings. It is the outcome of a single mind.
Contemplation of Chaplin’s position as an independent producer may well be made, and we can applaud his achievement of such a status, for had he not been at liberty to follow his own course when the rest of the screen talked, we should have seen him destroy all that City Lights means today with the lugubrious banality of speech. If only more directors were able to achieve this enviable position, we should have many more worth-while films instead of so many patently committee-made products. Fairbanks, it is true, has reached the stage of independent production, but amongst his many gifts he has not that of creative ability. But there are directors in America who have that power, would that they could aim to strike free from the trammels of studio routine. I wish that it were possible for more independent pictures to be produced, along certain commercial lines but without the tyranny of the studio executive-committees.
There are scarcely any directors in the cinema today who can make films as they wish, and who are allowed to rely on their own experience of what the public desires in the way of entertainment. Chaplin is not by any means the only director who is capable of independent production, but he is the only one who has broken free from the herd. King Vidor, Erich von Stroheim, John Cromwell, George Hill and Josef von Sternberg, to mention but a few, would each probably make infinitely more interesting films if it were made possible for them to do so. The stranglehold of the big companies and the difficulties presented by distribution, however, prevent this from becoming a reality.
And so, after years of hard work and shrewd foresight, as well as the development of an individual and rare instinct for the fundamentals of the cinema, Chaplin triumphs. He has defied commercialism in the interests of natural cinematic progress, and he will most probably win. At the moment, it is impossible to forecast the influence that City Lights will have, but it is possibly significant that speech is being severely curtailed in forthcoming American pictures, a tendency that can be directly traced to City Lights, and to a lesser extent to Rene Clair’s post-synchronized Sous les toits de Paris.
I am conscious that these remarks on the genius of Chaplin and the greatness of City Lights do not altogether reach to the root of the matter. But words are hopelessly inadequate to express emotions brought about by a constantly moving succession of images which rely for their appeal on pictorial value, and which are the product of a deep-thinking, amazingly creative mentality that has as its breath and life the fundamental essence of the cinema. In truth, Chaplin has reached nearer to the heart of real cinema than them all.
From ‘Celluloid, The Film Today’ by Paul Rotha (1931)