City Lights (1931)

Director/Coscreenwriter/Star: Charles Chaplin

City Lights (Chaplin) - makes Audley Harrison look like a boxer

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Among the many genius works of renaissance man Charlie Chaplin, City Lights stands as a singular achievement. It is not that other Chaplin films aren’t as funny, and the story for City Lights is certainly not as ambitious as, say, Modern Times (1936) or The Great Dictator (1940). If it were made today, we’d call it, perhaps dismissively, a romcom, a slapstick story of a poor man who loves a blind girl and uses his dubious encounters with the more prosperous outside world to help her.

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Some may say that City Lights gets its reputation as Chaplin’s greatest film because of its miraculous last scene. No less a writer and film critic than James Agee had this to say about that famous scene:

At the end of City Lights the blind girl who has regained her sight, thanks to the Tramp, sees him for the first time. She has imagined and anticipated him as princely, to say the least; and it has never seriously occurred to him that he is inadequate. She recognizes who he must be by his shy, confident, shining joy as he comes silently toward her. And he recognizes himself, for the first time, through the terrible changes in her face. The camera just exchanges a few quiet close-ups of the emotions which shift and intensify in each face. It is enough to shrivel the heart to see, and it is the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies.

As I watched that ending for the umpteenth time, and the hubby saw it for the very first time, our eyes moistened and our hearts agreed—this scene is indeed the finest ever committed to film. He and I, however, didn’t agree about what happened in the scene, and, in fact, I don’t agree with Agee about The Tramp suddenly seeming inadequate to himself when The Girl’s realization of who he really is is reflected back to him. But more on that later.

The film Chaplin made defied the demand for sound that was all the rage following the appearance of Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer in 1929. Wary of having his Everyman speak, Chaplin nonetheless wrote a score that used sound to put across some very funny gags indeed with both economy and wit.

The opening scene brilliantly sets up the great divide between the Establishment and The Tramp. Several rich poobahs stand on a dais in a square to unveil a statue they have donated to the city called “Peace and Prosperity.” Chaplin substitutes kazoos for voices, one pitched low for the men and another pitched high for the lady set to do the unveiling. No title cards are needed to understand the ceremonial claptrap that reaches its climax when the draping falls to reveal The Tramp sleeping on the lap of the central figure. Chaplin milks the uproar over the innocent desecration of this solemn moment by having The Tramp contorting with the grace of a born comic mime to free himself from the sword that has skewered his holey trousers; thinking further, one wonders what a figure with a drawn sword is doing in a statue called “Peace and Prosperity.”

City Lights (1931)

From this antic opening, The Tramp moves through the crowded, uncaring streets to his fateful encounter with The Girl (newcomer Virginia Cherrill, discovered by Chaplin at a boxing match). In one of the many small comic moments that fill the film to overflowing, The Tramp negotiates the gridlocked traffic by climbing in one side of a car and emerging onto the sidewalk through the other side. When he closes the door, The Girl holds out a flower she entreats him to buy. Her entreaty startles The Tramp, who wonders why anyone would think he had the need for or the price of a flower for his ragged lapel. With great subtlety, Chaplin investigates this odd turn of events by having his Tramp take the flower and with slight, gentle movements, pass it in front of The Girl. When her eyes don’t register his movements, his heart instantly goes out to her, and he gives her a coin. When the owner of the car at the curb returns, closes the door, and drives away, The Girl calling out that he did not take his change, The Tramp understands the misunderstanding. From that point on, he plays the swell whenever he visits her and finds himself in both comic and dire circumstances as he tries to be her benefactor.

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City Lights is chock full of comic set-pieces that showcase Chaplin’s nimble, cartoonlike movements, particularly when The Tramp comes into the orbit of The Millionaire (Harry Myers) who treats him like a brother when he is in his cups, but rejects him without recognition when he is sober. In perhaps my favorite comic bit of the film, The Tramp encounters The Millionaire on a riverfront as he slips a rope around his neck and prepares to lift the rock tied to the other end and toss it into the river. The Tramp runs to his rescue, only to have the rock dropped on his toe and the noose accidentally slipped over his head, dragging him into the drink. Naturally, in trying to rescue each other, both men end up pulling each other in again and again. The gag ends with the arrival of a policeman, but our fear for The Tramp is upended when The Millionaire declares him friend and takes him home.

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The Tramp is scorned or asea when facing the work-a-day world. The Millionaire’s Butler (Al Ernest Garcia) does everything he can to get rid of The Tramp, while two boys on a street corner taunt him and pelt him with peas through a pea shooter. He tries to earn money to keep The Girl and her Grandmother (Florence Lee) from being evicted by shoveling manure from the streets. The Tramp watches a man lead a large team of mules down the street and heads in the opposite direction, only to be greeted by the completely unexpected sight of an elephant lumbering past him. It is with these visual surprises that Chaplin startles the audience and adds a certain whimsical warmth to moments of potential drama or romanticism. This is particularly true at the end of the first meeting of The Tramp and The Girl, when he sits quietly watching her as she gets up to freshen her flowers’ water in a nearby fountain. She fills a pot under his loving gaze, swirls the water around, and then flings it out, drenching her unseen admirer. He shakes himself and slinks off as the scene fades on the innocent Girl refilling the pot.

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One of the most beautifully choreographed and realized scenes is The Tramp’s boxing match. After his arrangement to take a dive and split the $50 purse with his opponent falls through, The Tramp must do his best not to get pummeled by a fighter (Hank Mann) whose mere touch has sent men into a concussive swoon. The ingratiating smiles and handshakes he offers everyone from his opponent to his seconds are followed by a perfectly timed stutter step that keeps The Referee (Eddie Baker) between The Tramp and his foe. The Tramp manages a punch every fourth step and grabs the angry boxer in a desperate embrace to avoid a return blow. Further gags, again with The Tramp tangled in everything from the ropes to the bell marking the rounds, make for controlled anarchy and a rather suspenseful match. We almost can’t believe it when The Tramp loses, so close did Chaplin make the outcome, but winning is foreign territory to this outsider. Although Chaplin was by this time the most famous man in the world, one who remains an iconic influence today, he was emotionally bound in his work to his own beginnings as a poor boy who spent a good deal of his youth in a workhouse.

And then there is the final scene. Agee described the scene, and I would only draw your attention to something I learned from Roger Ebert. Notice what happens to the flower The Tramp takes from The Girl. In his close-ups, he holds it close to his face and simultaneously chews shyly on his finger while staring uninhibitedly at The Girl. In the reverse shot of The Girl, we see The Tramp’s hand lower, with the flower about chest high. So emotionally focused are Chaplin and Cherrill that this detail only registers after repeat viewings. I was quite reminded of a reader’s theatre performance I saw of Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell with Paul Henreid, Edward Mulhare, Ricardo Montalban, and Agnes Moorehead, in which my focus was so pulled by Mulhare that I never saw Henreid light a cigar. It’s magic in plain sight.

City Lights (1931)

City Lights is, as its name suggests, lit from within because of the emotional depth of the connection between The Tramp and The Girl. The Tramp is a child with an unselfish love that seeks nothing in return, not even The Girl’s good opinion of him. Once The Girl touches and recognizes the hands she held so often, no terrible regard crosses her face; rather, she seems softly astonished and then sees that love, not wealth, has bought her sight. They outshine the brassy bulbs and neon of the metropolis in which they are barely bit players and prove themselves to be, like the painfully divided man and woman in F. W. Murnau’s masterwork Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), the real city lights.

  • Kevyn Knox spoke:
    19th/12/2012 to 11:35 pm

    Great piece on a great movie. I have said in the past, that if aliens came to this planet and asked for a reason to not destroy us, a reason to show why we deserved to survive as a race, showing them Chaplin’s City Lights, would save us all.

  • Vanwall spoke:
    19th/12/2012 to 11:42 pm

    Excellent write up on a great film, one that I’ve been watching off and on since I was a kid. Always on TV, though, I imagine it must be a knockout on the big screen – the level of completeness and detail in this film is part of the repeat viewings fun, Chaplin’s films always have depth that way. Over the years, I learned how complicated his films were, extremely so with all the extended gags in this film, and I often think animation films owe more to Chaplin than anyone else, as well.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    19th/12/2012 to 11:53 pm

    Kevyn – Maybe we don’t deserve it, but Chaplin certainly does make a great case for the human race.

    Van – I did get a chance to see this under ideal circumstances about a decade ago – projected in Orchestra Hall with the CSO playing Chaplin’s original score live, complete with sound effects. It’s in my top five movie experiences – what a great film and what a great treatment of it.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    20th/12/2012 to 8:36 am

    “As I watched that ending for the umpteenth time, and the hubby saw it for the very first time, our eyes moistened and our hearts agreed—this scene is indeed the finest ever committed to film.”

    Known as “a comedy romance in pantomine” the film is actually a bittersweet tragedy, and Chaplin’s genius knew it would only work the way it if it stayed a silent at a time when talkies had taken control of Hollywood for several years. It’s Chaplin’s greatest masterpiece, and it’s final scene with the Tramp smiling, and holding a flower near his mouth is one of the truly great moments in the entire history of the cinema, and one that brings tears as decisively as any film in any genre, from any country. Hence, Marilyn, I can hardly agree with you (and Sean) more, and I applaud your use of the Agee quote, one I am familiar with. I’ve watched that scene more often than any in history, and today I learned ven more, ‘enlightened’ if you will by your brilliant analysis of the true meaning of that final iconic scene. It also features a rapurous operatic score that explodes in the end with the aural underpinnings that lifts this film into an emotional epiphany. Many of the earlier sequences at a park dedication, in a boxing ring, the scenes with the drunken millionaire who only knows him when he’s drunk, and a sequence when the Tramp swallows a whistle are as funny as anything Chaplin ever wrote, but it’s the humanism that elevates this. The film is told in the spare style of the classics, and is the result of what was purportedly Chaplin’s most painstaking work ever. Your superlative description of the boxing scene, the Tramp’s hilariously alternating involvement with Harry Myers, and the manner you bring this towering review full circle has done this, my favorite screen comedy, full justice. Your fabulous approach in examining the film, has brought yet another original focus to a film, that obviously has still not been exhausted in discussing. And that will be the lasting legacy of this great piece of one of the cinema’s most adored films.

  • dennis spoke:
    20th/12/2012 to 6:25 pm

    This comment was also left for Marilyn at WONDERS IN THE DARK as her review (above) was simultaneously published as part of Sam Juliano’s massive COMEDY TOP 100 COUNT.

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    Very nice essay that, in the end, raised a very interesting question that I had never pondered before. Seeing this film a million times, I had never once thought where The Tramp and The Flower Girl would go as a result of his dedication and kindness.

    Thinking about this now, Marilyn raises some very interesting observations on many of the moments and sequences in the film and, because of this new aspect, much of it falls into place in a more enriching and, now, obvious way. Now, I DON’T think The Tramp has much of a future, romantically, with The Flower Girl, but I do agree that the sustained shot at the end, arguably the greatest ever filmed (although, the reveal of the Star-child at the close of 2001, the discovery of the Statue of Liberty at the fade-out mark of PLANET OF THE APES, the burning of the sled that finishes off CITIZEN KANE and the autumn leaves washing over Micheal to end THE GODFATHER PART 2 would be close), brings us all to an ambiguous, but almost knowing, sensory moment that, quite frankly, is far more reaching and daring than anything Chaplin EVER concocted for one of his timeless films.

    With this new-found perspective, for me anyway, I can, once again, go back to CITY LIGHTS and marvel at yet another aspect of this film that I took for granted and see it in a whole new light. I can go back to CITY LIGHTS and look for things in what I had deemed familiar from many viewings and now understand why certain things were done, the parallels that are meticulously layered into the narrative fabric of this film, and marvel at the nuances in the performances and sweeps in Chaplins rousing, often touching, and always romantic score.

    There has been many years of debate on who was the better silent-screen clown and film-maker. Always, the authorities at large scream CHAPLIN or KEATON. This is a war that has raged ever since Keatons work was brought back for another look via revival showings in the 60′s and the 70′s here in the States. Often, I have been inclined to render a stalmate, regard them as equal geniuses of the form and happy just to have all this work to view, pleasurably, for the rest of my life. But, now that this added aspect to CITY LIGHTS has been plopped into my lap I know that my affections for the two is now slowly lop-siding. Personally, I have always preferred Chaplin, his stuff rings with a kind of humanity and emotion very few, at the time, could effortlessly bring to screeen. I have been labeled a sentimentalist for this and called “wishy-washy” because I, presumably, allow feeling to blind me from making an accurate assessment of the art.

    However, understanding this new aspect and, now, knowing, that it was intentionally devised by Chaplin only makes me admire the artist that WAS The Little Tramp even more. His keen sense to know, through the building of narrative and the detail in creating that narrative, exactly when to flood the viewers heart with rending emotion through perfectly timed visuals makes me realize that CITY LIGHTS wasn’t just brilliant, but light years beyond anything he was doing before or since. YES, YES, YES, I agree that films like MODERN TIMES and THE GOLD RUSH are pure classics of the form and a perfect display for Chaplins versatility as a film-maker, imaginer and performer, but none of those films are as all enveloping and thought provoking as what the final shot of CITY LIGHTS hints at. Everything that comes before that sustained shot, such a simple moment, was a building block leading you there and to questions and hopes for and about those people on the screen you come to love and care for so deeply.

    Had I reviewed this film, I probably would have gone on for pages and pages talking about this that and the other thing. I’d have asked you to look for something in scene one and then something in scene ten and wax poetic over a particular flourish in the music during a particular sequence. Good, but pretty standard fare. What Marilyn has done, in the simplicity of only a few paragraphs (I’d have written a small book), was grab the viewer for a moment and ask them to really, REALLY think about something that seems so minute but is far deeper and, cartainly, more complex than we had originally thought.

    Thinking about all this now, after dozens of viewings, makes me excited to see CITY LIGHTS yet again, absolutely sing the praises of this film as Chaplins bonafide masterpiece (a film he spent over a year making, laboring tirelessly to make it perfect) and tell Mr. Keaton that he was edged out by a hair because he doesn’t have one in his canon that makes you think and ponder like CITY LIGHTS does.

    CITY LIGHTS has always been on my shortlist as one of my PERSONAL favorite films of all time. Now, I can, inequivically, feel justified in my reasonings for seeing it as one of the 10 greatest films the art of film-making has ever seen.

    Thank you so much for this, Marilyn.

  • Kirk spoke:
    20th/12/2012 to 7:00 pm

    I know this in an odd question, but do you have any thoughts about the title cards in the final scene of CITY LIGHTS? In essays I’ve read about this film, the focus is always on the “You?”, but I find the “You can see now?” “Yes, I can see now” exchange intriguing. I suppose pantomime could and did put the basic idea across, but, for me at least, to have actually seen (pardon the pun) the word “see”, and the multiple meanings that it entailed, added immensely to that final shot

  • Marilyn spoke:
    20th/12/2012 to 10:23 pm

    Kirk – Not odd at all. I believe the double meaning was intentional. I certainly see it as The Girl not only being able to physically see, but also having the scales fall from her eyes about the true worth of her benefactor.

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