City Lights is a 1931 American pre-Code silent romantic comedy film written by, directed by, and starring Charlie Chaplin. The story follows the misadventures of Chaplin’s Tramp as he falls in love with a blind girl (Virginia Cherrill) and develops a turbulent friendship with an alcoholic millionaire (Harry Myers).
Although sound films were on the rise when Chaplin started developing the script in 1928, he decided to continue working with silent productions. Filming started in December 1928, and ended in September 1930. City Lights marked the first time Chaplin composed the film score to one of his productions and it was written in six weeks with Arthur Johnston. The main theme used as 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.
City Lights was immediately successful upon release on January 30, 1931 with positive reviews and box office receipts of $5 million. Today, critics consider it not only the highest accomplishment of Chaplin’s career, but one of the greatest films ever made. In 1992, 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’s 100 Years… 100 Movies ranked City Lights as the 11th greatest American film of all time. In 1949, the critic James Agee referred to the final scene in the film as the “greatest single piece of acting ever committed to celluloid”.