A couple of weeks ago, a meme made its way around Twitter, in which film fans were tagged and asked to post a movie still that they considered a “perfect” shot. I didn’t participate at the time, but I’d like to go ahead and post my choice here today: the final image from Charlie Chaplin’s magnificent City Lights (1931).
by Brandie Ashe
This, to me, is one of the most transcendent images from all of cinema: the whole of the human experience etched on a most unexpected face. Chaplin’s expression here–to borrow an expression from Walt Whitman–contains multitudes: there is love commingled with joy, warring with the fear of rejection and tinged with nervous energy. The Tramp’s face is vital, alive with feeling. It is not exactly an attractive face, ravaged as it is by the itinerant lifestyle he’s led and the months he has recently spent in prison, but for all that it has been through, it is still an innocent face, and a lovable one. It is the face of a man who has loved purely and well, while expecting absolutely nothing in return, and there are few things more heartrendingly beautiful than that.
There are ostensibly two romances at work in City Lights–both of which admittedly play backseat to the comedic elements that dominate the majority of the film (the movie is not subtitled “A Comedy Romance in Pantomime” for nothing)–and neither exactly promises a happy ending for our two main characters. There is the adoration that the Tramp feels for the Flower Girl (Virginia Cherrill), defined by a sincere desire to help her in any way he can, be it taking an undesirable job or subjected himself to a boxing match in hopes of winning a big payday. The Tramp’s love for the Flower Girl is based in large part on his sympathy for her, for he cannot help but identify with her on some level; like him, she clings to the bottom rungs of a heartless society, subjected to the whims of a cruel fate, though her disability makes her far less resourceful than he at the mere act of survival. But even as he strives to find a way to get the money to restore her sight, he does so with the full knowledge that the cure will also mean the end of the budding relationship between them, and so there’s a decided heaviness that underlies the Tramp’s infatuation.
Then there is the hopeful reverence that the Flower Girl feels for her mysterious benefactor, who in her mind is a millionaire playboy–a savior, her white knight of olden times, riding upon his Rolls-Royce to save the day. That love is built largely on gratitude, but also on a sense of excitement and anticipation: will this man provide the ultimate escape from her dreary life? In the film’s final act, the Girl’s obvious longing for the return of her benefactor is both touching and sad, for we know that the inevitable revelation of the truth will not meet with her expectations. It’s one reason why the Tramp is so reluctant to interact with her in the end (though he ultimately cannot help himself), because he does not wish to puncture the fantasy.
Love, it seems, truly is blind.
There is no real indication that the end of the film is a resolution of any sort between these two characters. There is no sense that the Flower Girl will magically fall head over heels in love with the Tramp, or that he even desires her to, for it’s evident that his satisfaction comes from seeing her eyes focus on his face, watching her take in every detail of his appearance, witnessing them soften with understanding, and perhaps a little pity, for both herself and for him. And yet, for all the impossibility of their circumstances, there is a flicker of hope. “You can see now?” the Tramp asks her. She nods. “Yes, I can see now,” she replies in a tone rife with meaning, clutching his hand to her chest as she truly sees him for the first time.
There are less … let’s say, sentimental interpretations of this final scene–of the entire film, to be sure. But for me, City Lights is an exercise in eternal, selfless optimism. The cynicism of the modern world never encroaches upon the Tramp’s outlook on the human condition; as he tells the suicidal millionaire, “Be brave! Face life!” And that’s exactly what the Tramp does. He is adept at adapting to circumstance. It’s how he survives in a society that seems to be against him at every turn, and it’s how he manages to maintain a sense of dignity even when the rug is being repeatedly and unceremoniously yanked out from underneath him. He sacrifices his time, his little money, his happiness, his very freedom, for the opportunity to help someone he’s just met, and all without expectation of anything in return–except, perhaps, the chance to see a girl open her eyes to view the world for herself for the very first time.
I look at this ending–admittedly, through tear-soaked eyes (every single time)–and think not of what potential disappointments the future holds for these characters, but of the buoyant present. A moment that is almost too beautiful to bear. An instance of singular, crystalline clarity and sheer loveliness that looks cynicism in the eye and beats it to a bloody pulp.
This is the magic of cinema, its beating heart, in one battered personage, smiling openly and shyly with unfettered, innocent, joyous love.