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.
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 indeed, 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 of Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell by 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 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 Tale of Two Humans (1927), the real city lights.