City Lights (1931, Charles Chaplin)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
Articulating the appeal of Charlie Chaplin is something beyond the grasp of writers, and most movie lovers in general. Andrei Tarkovsky described him as “the only person to have gone down into cinematic history without any shadow of a doubt,” adding: “The films he left behind can never grow old.” His best films endure for their furiously intricate detail and direction, but more than anything because his humor and pathos appeal to virtually everyone at a basic core human level. Across any number of cultural and language barriers, his movies can connect. And none is a more elegantly simple, uproariously moving piece of popular entertainment than City Lights — one of the greatest works of western art of the last century, and surely the film that most deeply argues with a passion rendered entirely visually, without the aid of sound, for humanity, love, empathy. To see it is to be greeted with open arms, and to be absorbed in its solace.
In our heart of hearts, do we want to analyze and attempt to “explain” this film? Its effect is so delicately sweet and so thoroughly unfussy and free of pretension, one worries that its greatness can appear incorrectly minimized at such an inappropriate kind of scrutiny — yet the themes and emotions touched on here, as simple and universal as they may be, are very rich and “deep” indeed. Our primary reason for not wanting to know how a Chaplin film, especially this Chaplin film, works is not dissimilar to that of the child who prefers to believe the illusionist is capable of actual magic. (No less a figure of imagination than Alfred Hitchcock would claim he never wanted to know how theatrical special effects were done.) I have no lack of faith in Chaplin’s magic, yet I find that looking deeper at City Lights in its tightly economical sequence of events and all of its individual, at first seemingly disconnected episodes has only served to strengthen its grip on me since the day I came home in a horrendous mood, caught the film on TCM, and stood up in a haze of the most gleeful exuberance, faith in humanity renewed. After you’ve exhausted every avenue of this film, its culmination at the finale continues to touch as deeply as anything in cinema.
From the iconic introduction of the Tramp — snoozing atop a newly unveiled statue — to his befuddling encounter with a drunkenly mourning millionaire willing to share his wares, City Lights seems of a piece with the largest share of the director and star’s work to date, from his dignified-slapstick shorts to acknowledged classic features The Gold Rush and The Circus. But it’s with the introduction of Virginia Cherrill as the blind flower girl that City Lights is launched assuredly into the stratosphere. We are drawn to her instantly not because of pity for her handicap but because of her resistance to victimhood, her spirited independence that in Chaplin’s eyes becomes a human purity — not a virginal, patriarchal purity but an illustration of the human capacity to be undaunted, to even refuse to draw a line from an impairment to a misfortune or suffering. Yet she does long to see, particularly the eyes of the mysterious, seemingly wealthy man who’s become her benefactor. At their initial contact, as she reaches for a man she believes is no longer there — he watches from afar — we’re seeing the shy enactment of an unrequited romantic tradition: the original Missed Connection, if you will.
But he comes back, and he — the Tramp who can’t even rescue his pair of trousers from ripping, destruction, and getting champagne poured into them — finds himself a figure of dignity in her life, for of course she cannot see his oblong face and clownish mustache. The peripheral psychodrama of the millionaire’s marriage that keeps supplying him with a nightly, fleeting bounty must of course run dry as the rich man’s grief and alcoholism fade to hangover bewilderment in the mornings; he’s the classic dumped male, attempting suicide immediately prior to deciding to “go burn up the town” in “the Rolls Royce.” Containment isn’t his; his every whim and contradictory decision is stated and acted upon. But the Tramp and the flower girl never explicitly state anything; they never kiss, never give verbal evidence of their feelings for one another — their relationship is expressed in acts of acceptance and kindness. There’s no evident desire for anything more, but for this tiny amount Chaplin’s Tramp will do anything — anything. Things he’d never normally do, things he would normally not even be capable of doing — and sometimes still isn’t (boxing, construction work, robbery).
As was by now standard for his feature projects, Chaplin spent years working and reworking the comedy sequences and the various story points, parsing out every detail with ruthless dedication. That attention is immediately apparent in the seamlessly balletic engineering of nearly every scene, and the flawless expression and elucidation of the internal lives and relationships of the characters — few false notes survived all that rewriting and retooling, and almost nothing seems overwrought or misdirected. Everything occurs in the perfect proportion to render this both a pure hysterical comedy and one of the most deeply affecting of all feature films. City Lights is full as well of extraordinarily complicated, if subtle, shots and staging — over and over, Chaplin fills the screen behind him (and thus his sprawling studio) with people in the midst of fluttered, feverish activity much more involved and frantic than what extras are typically asked to do. The suggestion is always that he is simply another man within the larger world of stories and lives, many of them as touching and heartbreaking as this one, even if few would be so adept as Chaplin at telling them.
This underscores the thematic fixation of City Lights — much more focused than the dramatic content of his other features — on the unpredictability and unlikelihood of affections and affinities among people, particularly the sort of peculiar one-sided love affair represented here. The millionaire himself reacts to his lover’s departure from his life by taking it out on the Tramp and replicating her movements. He is the lover becoming distant and then back again. But he’s hardly alone; Chaplin wisely notes that there’s little true “purity” (this time in the classic sense, as honesty and moral grounding) in the behavior of anyone. His love for the flower girl is, of course, an object of “purity” and yet his entire persona in her presence is an opportunistic fabrication — it’s ultimately selfless but still a deception whereby he’s seized on the moment to fill a role he’s longed for in the life of a woman, only then to slip off and quietly disappear into the night. He accepts its fleeting, unrequited nature as a reality both automatic and absolute. Unlike the millionaire, he’s acutely familiar with the limits of the world — his world.
In this regard, he must even see himself in the blind girl as a fellow figure of disenfranchisement, if of a different sort. His access to some material gain, however temporary, allows him to aid her in moving past her own obstacle, an indirect triumph of his own he can only share in second-hand. But he has no expectation otherwise, certainly not of her becoming his lover, however he must pine for her from the first to the last. (It’s not the only time Chaplin resisted letting us view the Tramp as a romantic figure out of respect to the melancholic core of the character, though The Gold Rush was a particularly strong break from this tradition.) Like so much in the film, the relationship at its center simply cannot be pinned down to verbal specifics — there can be no reduction, certainly no consummation to what they are. They are not wholly platonic, nor are they fully mutually silent about their attractions. They simply know what they are, and no other expression is capable of defining that.
It would be fun to speculate that, in making a silent film two years after sound was almost universally adopted in Hollywood, Chaplin was making some argument about a similar futility of language — but in fact, a large reason for the absence of sound is simply practical: the production of City Lights spanned four years, meaning that sound became a supposed necessity in the middle of its creation. That didn’t stop other filmmakers from reshooting with a soundtrack, but Chaplin was aware that sound wouldn’t allow the Tramp’s particular humor, neither slapstick nor vaudeville but with touches of both, to work. Yet his character, disallowed from speaking, would prove as popular as ever upon the 1931 release of the film, enough so that Chaplin would direct a further silent Tramp film, Modern Times, in 1936.
For all his concern about the timing and inner workings of every shot, Chaplin proved himself perfectly happy to submit to total humiliation onscreen, battered and drubbed and powdered and dragged through eighty-odd minutes of hilarious bumbling that somehow never loses its air of integrity. A scene in which he participates in an amateur boxing tournament is both the most famous and the most tiresome example — it begins brightly and is sharpy satirical of other boxing flicks like The Champ but takes too long to make a very rote point about the meek and the powerful, the same “some people take and some get took” logic, however demonstrably true, of The Apartment.
Yet, as the film leaves us, the Tramp has changed a life quietly and slipped off into the night to pay for it. Despite everything, a peaceful dignity is his — if only in his inner world, his “secret life” as Leonard Cohen would put it seven decades later. That’s the destiny to which he’s resigned and is surely still resigned when the film fades, but in the interim, when he comes face to face with the flower girl again and they exchange a simple, curious look and a few words — if that moment of utter transcendent acting and emotion doesn’t make you well up, well, start checking for that pulse. I’m a blubbering mess in that last thirty seconds, and I suspect I — along with most movie lovers — always will be.