By 1931, Hollywood had fully embraced the talkie. So it was a big risk for Charlie Chaplin to think audiences would still come out to a silent picture. But this gamble by the silent era’s biggest star paid off, and City Lights ended up being a smash hit for Chaplin, even if it was moving against the times. One often hears of silent stars whose careers went in the toilet because they didn’t have the voices to match their on-screen selves. Chaplin had a fine voice, but perhaps an even greater reason to be wary of sound: his clownish on-screen persona the Little Tramp just wouldn’t work in a sound context. Rather than devise a new persona, Chaplin stuck with the format he new best. The premise of City Lights is simple, the Little Tramp falls for a blind woman who sells flowers on a street corner. She mistakenly believes he is a rich man — a mistake the Tramp is happy to let her make. In seeking to acquire the money needed to restore the woman’s sight, the Little Tramp is cast into a series of misadventures including run-ins with a drunk, suicidal millionaire and a boxing match for the ages. Chaplin trafficks heavily in sentimentality in City Lights, but he achieves a tricky balance of romance, slapstick, and whimsy in what is generally considered his finest film. (87 min.)
S. – What a difference a few years can make. The fantastic physical comedy of Chaplin is showcased in much more sophisticated wrapping in City Lights than in The Gold Rush (1925). Outside the many astounding and humorous scenarios is a story that pulls it all together in an engaging, and appropriately ridiculous, manner. The Tramp seems much more at home in the streets of a city than on the side of a mountain and there is endless opportunity for the passing crowd to keep this outsider in his place. The growth of Chaplin as a director is impressive, suddenly we are dealing with someone who not only understands funny but has learned to employ the movie medium to pull the audience into his world.
J. – I would have to agree. Chaplin is by no means an inventive director, in so much as his camera tends to stay quite static with perhaps a few pans here and there, but he has a strong knack for timing, and ultimately that is the most important thing for a comedy film. And the film does look very good. The set designs and lighting are generally excellent; so even if the camera might not do much moving, the atmosphere and vibe of the scene are established quickly and completely.
And I agree that the Little Tramp seems much more at home in the city, and consequently his interactions with other characters feel more genuine — be it the taunts of newsies on the street corner or the sneer of a rich man’s butler. The lack of a fantastical feel to the environment actually elevates the comedy, making it that much more ridiculous. In The Gold Rush, the wild snowy setting allowed for pretty much anything to happen, in which case propriety is not an issue — and what is comedy if not twisting or assaulting our sense of propriety? Chaplin’s Tramp is a romantic bum, the perfect foil for City Lights‘ wealthy snobs and working class toughs alike. But perhaps most importantly, the love story in City Lights felt right and organic, not tacked on and preposterous like it did in The Gold Rush.
S. – The romantic element was handled with far more sincerity this time around and worked as a believable motivator for many of the hijinx that were woven around it. My favorite scene from the movie was the boxing match, with the brilliant shadow footwork between the tramp and the referee. It was great to see Chaplin land a few blows on his out-smarted opponent even though all the laws of nature indicated that he should be getting pummelled. But there was barely a moment without a reason to smile, from the myriad small humiliations of being a tramp to the elaborately choreographed slap-stick routines. The tramp slides effortlessly between woebegone slob to wily opportunist. Even though he was such a slippery character I was still rather taken aback be the ending, which changed the pace again, closing with a scene that was genuinely sweet and unpretentious.
J. – The boxing sequence is the awesome, absolutely the best comic setpiece of the film. That fight must be the standard upon which every cartoon fight from Looney Tunes onward has been based. In general, there are quite a few excellent comedic bits in City Lights, which I think is far, far funnier than earlier Chaplin efforts. I particularly like Chaplin and the suicidal millionaire’s outing to the dance hall, in which they drunkenly take umbrage at pretty much everything happening around them while inadvertently producing mayhem in all directions. I have to give particular props to the waiter with the tray of dishes whom Chaplin whirls around and around on the dance floor — how that guy saved those plates I can’t imagine (that must have been Take 57 of that bit). But what’s great about all of these scenes is that none of them go well for the Tramp. Even when thinks work out favorably, the benefits typically end up being for somebody else and not him. In any other film, the Tramp would have won that boxing match — not in City Lights!
But that does bring us back to the romance between the Tramp and the flower seller. Virginia Cherrill does an excellent job as the flower seller, very convincingly playing a blind person and selling the comedy related to her not being able to see what Chaplin’s tramp is doing. The character’s blindness really should have been a mawkish element of the film, but in many ways I think it ends up being a masterstroke. Though his heart may be in the right place, Chaplin’s Tramp is a very unappealing suitor. So it actually makes a great deal of sense that the only woman who could love him is one that can’t see him. You mentioned in our Gold Rush yammer, S., that you felt the Tramp and the love interest were too far apart socially and personality-wise to make for a convincing romantic sub-plot. I agree that was a major failing of The Gold Rush, but the relationship in City Lights feels so much more genuine and believable, even though the scenario is totally preposterous. I definitely want to discuss the famous final scene you mentioned, but I’d be curious first to know what you felt about Cherrill’s performance and the love story side of the film in general.
S. – You know there is something about the Tramp character that I just don’t trust, something shifty. I’m not sure I can really put my finger on what it is exactly, but it is the reason I prefer Buster Keaton to Chaplin. To believe a character’s relationship requires you to trust them, and I never bought it from the tramp in The Gold Rush but I was won over (eventually) in City Lights! This probably had a lot to do with Cherrill’s presence, amongst the mayhem she was quietly getting on with business without relying on help or pity from anyone.
I agree that a hapless bum like Chaplin, with his shabby clothes and obsessive hat tipping, would have enormous trouble winning the affections of any sighted person, so having a blind leading lady was a clever twist. The flower girl was portrayed with strength, sweetness and composure, and while her blindness did setup some jokes it was never used to make her the fool. So I was impressed by the love interest but always a little uneasy that she would end up played for laughs. Happily that was not the case and the response of the Tramp as she truly recognises him at the close was genuinely touching.
J. – The ending of City Lights is generally considered one of the greatest in the history of cinema, and I’m largely inclined to agree with that — even if I’d rather watch a Buster Keaton film on the whole. The final scene is pretty much the most sentimental ending to any film I’m ever seen, but it really, undeniably works beautifully. I also think a lot of that does have to do with Cherrill’s portrayal of the blind woman, giving her a genuineness and heartfelt quality that makes her acceptance of the Tramp believable and wonderful. And then there is that element of the ups and downs of the film, in which the Tramp’s victories immediately turn into spectacular defeats, so it was a lovely moment to see that pattern reversed in the end as he receives a spectacular triumph when he is really at his lowest ebb. It’s also the first and only time the film moves into close-ups, which allows the moment to be played out more naturally while wringing all of the emotion out of every gesture. I’m not one for overt sentiment in movies, but if the ending of City Lights doesn’t work for you, there’s a fair chance you’re totally heartless.