SF Silent Film Festival Returns to Live Cinema with Chaplin’s City Lights

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival returns to presenting live cinema this February 19 at the Paramount Theater with the Oakland Symphony Orchestra accompanying Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece City Lights (1931), conducted by Timothy Brock. You may order tickets HERE.

Charlie with co-star Virginia Cherrill

Chaplin knew his Little Tramp could never speak if he was to retain his universal appeal. But releasing a silent movie years after they had become obsolete was a huge gamble, and the press loved to speculate about it.

Along with a PDF tour of Los Angeles filming locations, this post covers some fun, random information about the movie many consider Charlie’s pinnacle achievement. (Check out the crossword puzzle below). Chaplin reportedly discovered co-star twenty year old Virginia Cherrill sitting ringside at a boxing match. She had never acted before. In 1934 Virginia would become Cary Grant’s first wife – the marriage lasted barely one year. Grant and his former roommate actor Randolph Scott, all pictured at left, resumed living together once the marriage ended.

One fun discovery, not reported in my book Silent Traces, Charlie spots a discarded cigar butt while driving around his millionaire friend’s car, and leaps out to snag it just before another bum grabs it. This was filmed on South El Camino Drive, south from Wilshire Boulevard, with the newly opened Beverly Wilshire Hotel at back.

A testament to the skill of early filmmakers, before CGI effects, this remarkable production photo from the Chaplin Archive reveals the towering city skyline effect during the opening scene was created on Chaplin’s small studio backlot, placing a scale model in the foreground while filming the true two-story set in the far background, the so-called foreground (or hanging) miniature effect. What a stunning achievement – bravo.

Among 28 pages of artwork and other publicity materials promoting City Lights, here’s a crossword puzzle (from page 6) with the answers further below in this post. With this PDF link you can print it out for home use. The first clue, one across, seven letters is “First name of greatest comedian in Motion Pictures.” Hmm, “Buster” and “Harold” are both six letters, who could it be? 😉

Albert Einstein and Chaplin at the premiere

In closing, I had the honor to introduce City Lights for the Los Angeles Conservancy a few years ago at their “Last Remaining Seats” screening held at the spectacular Los Angeles Theater, the very theater where the film premiered on January 30, 1931, with Albert Einstein and his wife Elsa in attendance as Charlie’s special guests. The entire house stood to honor them when they entered the theater.  Chaplin was pleased to notice Einstein wiping his eyes during the emotional final scenes. It was the premiere screening ever held at the brand new theater. Incredibly, about 30 minutes into the show the theater owner interrupted the screening and turned up the house lights to brag about his new venue. Chaplin was understandably upset by the stunt.

Unlike the gritty locations appearing during The Kid (1921), Chaplin sought out modern and urbane settings for City Lights.  Yet another example of how the varied streets of Los Angeles were employed to set just the right character and tone for the movies. This self-guided written tour prepared for LA Conservancy event (see link below) explains the many downtown and Wilshire Boulevard movie locations appearing during the film. Above, Charlie races to purchase Virginia’s flowers at the NW corner of Wilshire and S. Commonwealth Ave., with the corner of Lafayette Park behind them.

Charlie Chaplin City Lights Film Location Tour

I didn’t forget – here are the crossword puzzle answers, also a PDF link if you want to print it out. Chaplin archival documents Copyright © Roy Export S.A.S or © Roy Export Company Establishment. All Rights Reserved CHARLIE CHAPLIN © Bubbles Incorporated S.A. All Rights Reserved. Read more posts about City Lights HERE. Hope to see you at the Paramount on February 19.

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