Although talkies were already the rage by 1931, Chaplin kept City Lights voice free, convinced that The Tramp would be more of a universal character if he didn't speak. There's a soundtrack with music and synchronized sound effects—including one brilliant scene involving a swallowed whistle and a pack of dogs—but dialogue is still shown with silent film intertitles. It was a smart choice; without extraneous chat, Chaplin's brilliantly choreographed physical comedy takes center stage. The famous boxing sequence, in which Chaplin dances around Eddie Baker's hapless Referee in an effort to avoid Hank Mann's formidable Prizefighter, is just one of a sequence of comic set pieces that are so hilarious because they are so precise.
In classic auteur fashion, Chaplin produced, wrote, directed, and (for the first time) composed the music for City Lights. By contemporary standards the score is a bit lightweight, repeating a relatively small set of themes with little elaboration, but it serves the film extraordinarily well. Ever the perfectionist, Chaplin labored long and hard over very page. The finished product, in a 2004 performing edition by Timothy Brock, integrates so seamlessly with the on-screen action that, as Brock observed, spoken dialogue "would not only be repetitive but it would be counterproductive".
Performing a live score in synch with a film requires a degree of precision and attention to detail that Chaplin would have understood and which David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony possess in abundance. The comedic moments were appropriately rambunctious, while the sentimental scenes—usually accompanied by a string quartet—were utterly charming. The whole experience was, in short, an aural and visual delight.
There's something oddly comforting in the realization that a film made so many decades ago can still enchant and entertain an audience in the Internet Age. St. Louisans have one more chance to experience that enchantment on Thursday, December 30th, at 7:30 PM. As a late holiday treat, it's hard to beat. City Lights runs just under 90 minutes and it's family friendly in the best sense of the term in that both kids and adults will find it entertaining. You can even bring your popcorn and drinks into the hall. For more information, call the box office at 314-534-1700 or visit the web site at stlsymphony.org.