“City Lights” - Charlie Chaplin (1931)

Charlie Chaplin, perhaps the greatest movie star ever, was an inimitable film artist who went his own way and single-handedly fashioned his brilliant career.  Looking at his greatest work, City Lights (1931), offers one the opportunity not only to see a fine film, but also to get some insight into Chaplin’s creative genius. 

Chaplin’s own life is a fascinating story in its own right.  Born in 1889 in London into extreme poverty, Chaplin was practically an orphan – his father was always away and his struggling mother couldn’t make ends meet and was eventually sent to a mental institution when Charlie was 14.  His formal schooling, which had always been minimal, ended permanently at the age of 13 when he dropped out to seek employment in music hall and stage performing.  He managed to work with a company that toured the American vaudeville circuit and eventually wound up acting in American silent-film comedies in 1914.  He was such an immediate success that by 1917 he was a multimillionaire and one of the highest paid people in the world [1]. He soon took an interest in all phases of film production, and by 1922 was moving from one- and two-reelers to feature-length film production.  By this time Chaplin was the ultimate auteur: not only starring as the lead actor, but also writing the stories and producing, directing, and editing the films, too. Since he was enormously wealthy and his own producer, Chaplin could be a perfectionist and take however long he wanted to finish his productions [2,3].  This made him difficult to work with, but he had the ultimate response to any objections – his films were almost invariably successful.

In 1928 Chaplin began working on the story for his masterpiece, City Lights.  Although the first sound film, The Jazz Singer (1927), had been released the year before and the movie industry felt that silent films were doomed, Chaplin felt that the bulkiness of sound production equipment and procedures was too limiting for his kind of expression.  So he persisted with the idea of making a silent film. For this work he was the producer, director, lead actor, script writer, film editor, and music composer (the music was orchestrated by Arthur Johnston and Alfred Newman and incorporated a theme by José Padilla).  And, of course, by this time Chaplin was even more of a perfectionist than ever, reshooting many scenes over and over to get just what he was looking for – the shooting ratio was an extravagant 38:1. Things took so long that by the time the perfectionist Chaplin finished and released City Lights in 1931, silent films were clearly a phenomenon of the past.  Nevertheless, Chaplin’s artistry was so effective that the film was his greatest hit at the box office.

Actually, City Lights is not truly a silent film.  It has no (intelligible) spoken dialogue, but it does have a synchronous sound track to convey diegetic noises and contextually-appropriate music.  There are a few textual intertitles, but the film effectively conveys its narrative content by means of gestures and facial expressions.  (For a latter-day retake on some of the themes and methods of City Lights, I refer the curious to check out the more recent Indian film, Pushpak (1987)).

There are a couple of key aspects to Chaplin’s work that are first worth considering.  One concerns the nature of comedy, itself.  Many times comedies are just a disconnected string a jokes.  Admittedly, the jokes are usually presented within a particular setting and context, but the jokes are still mostly insular.  Chaplin’s comedies tended to feature longer narrative threads, and this is what makes them hold up over the longer length of a feature film.

Another key aspect to Chaplin’s work was the nature of the character that up to this point he almost invariably played: the Tramp.  Chaplin’s Tramp character was an odd mixture of British and American funkiness, with his disheveled waistcoat, bowler hat, and cane serving to bedeck essentially a bum.  This character, though, had several attributes that were essential to what made him interesting [4]:
  • In search of dignity
    Despite his rumpled appearance, the Tramp is always concerned about his dignity and whether he is being shown proper respect.  This we might think of as more of a British theme than an American one.  I have remarked elsewhere on the subject of dignity and why I believe it is seriously incorrect to think of dignity as a basic human right [5].  But dignity can still be important to the individual in terms of how he or she sees him or herself.  It is basically a personal matter, but Chaplin’s character effectively externalizes his concerns about dignity when he feels he is subject to smirking mockery by people around him.

  • Cheekiness
    At the same time and in the reverse direction, the Tramp has all the impudence of a naughty boy.  This serves to ruffle the feathers of those who look down at him, and it suggests to me more of an American theme of wiseacre-ness.

  • Pathos and sympathy
    The Tramp suffers many indignities, but he shyly suffers empathetically for others, too. He often wants to help but lacks the means to do so. This is what makes him a sympathetic character.
City Lights concerns narrative threads that bring out these features of the Tramp character.  A major theme in the film is seeing – seeing the true nature of people and the world.  Sometimes people look, but they don’t see.  The story is presented in nine 8-to-10-minute segments, and this typical length may have been influenced by Chaplin’s earlier experience with one- and two-reeler films, since the average length of a 35mm film reel was about 11 minutes.  The overall pacing and tempo is fast, and yet there are a number of lengthy shots in the film.  These shots are full of action and had to be carefully choreographed, a requirement which must have been a major contributor to the number of scene re-shoots and the high shooting ratio.

1.  Introducing the Tramp
In the first segment, the viewer is introduced to the Tramp (Chaplin) and his perilous but casual life on the street.  He is shown taking a nap on a statue that is about to be unveiled in a pompous civic ceremony, and later (in an 83-second shot) he unknowingly dances around a sidewalk elevator while he gazes at a nude statue in a store window.  Later he happens onto a pretty “Girl” (Virginia Cherrill) selling flowers on the street.  When he notices the Girl is blind, he can’t help but use one of his last coins to buy a boutonniere from her. In these brief scenes we see the major elements of the Tramp’s character – cheekiness, quest for dignity, and empathy.

2.  Dockside Encounter
In the evening when the Tramp is about to sleep on a bench by the river, he notices a well-dressed man – the “Millionaire” (Harry Myers) – about to drown himself in the river.  The Tramp stops him from doing so and when the Millionaire comes to his senses, he declares the Tramp to be “his friend for life”.  He takes the Tramp to his wealthy home, where the two of them proceed to get drunk on whiskey.  This includes a 100-second shot of the two of them sharing (and spilling) their drinks.   After a second suicide attempt is also blocked by the Tramp, the Millionaire, now deciding to live life to the fullest, insists that the two of them go out for a night on the town.

3.  The Nightclub
The third sequence features various slapstick scenes at a posh nightclub.  This includes famous cigar-lighting (53 seconds) and spaghetti-eating (60-second) shots that are frivolous but amusing.

4.  Returning Home
On the way back to the Millionaire’s home in the rich man’s Rolls Royce, the Tramp notices the Girl selling large flower bouquets.  He borrows $10 (worth $150 today) from his friend and returns to the girl in the Rolls Royce to take her home.  To the blind Girl, the Tramp seems to be a wealthy and courtly gentleman, not a tramp.  Back at the mansion, though, the now-sober Millionaire doesn’t remember his life-saving encounter with the Tramp, and has him thrown out on the street.

5.  Afternoon
The Tramp is back on the street and again penniless.  But he runs into the Millionaire, who is once again inebriated and can again recognize and remember his “lifelong friend”.  The Tramp is invited to a party at the Millionaire’s home, and again there are more hijinks involving the Tramp’s accidental swallowing of a whistle with disruptive consequences.  In the morning and the return of sobriety, the Millionaire, who is about to leave on a trip to Europe, again cannot remember anything about the Tramp, who is once more thrown out of the home and back on the street.

6.  Helping the Girl
So far, more than halfway through the film, the story has mostly been a string of well-crafted visual jokes triggered by the back-and-forth relationship between the Millionaire and the Tramp.  Now things shift in the Girl’s direction.  The Girl is ill with fever.  In order to help her, the Tramp gets a job as a lowly street cleaner.  During his lunch breaks, he visits the Girl, masquerading, verbally, as a wealthy gentleman.  On one such visit he reads to the girl a news item about a Viennese doctor who can cure blindness.  He promises to send her their for the operation.  Since the Grandmother (Florence Lee) is always away during these visits, there is noone to tell the Girl that her visitor is a lowly tramp. Just when the Tramp learns that she and her Grandmother are about to be thrown out of their flat due to unpaid rent, he gets fired from his street-cleaning job.  So the Tramp is now desperate to help her.

7.  The Boxing Match
By serendipity, the Tramp gets lured into a boxing match, the earnings from which could save the Girl’s apartment.  This is a famous 14-minute scene with a number of twists and turns and extended boxing-match shots, all choreographed to perfection.  Despite impossible odds, the Tramp almost pulls things off, but in the end he is back penniless on the street.

8.  The Millionaire Returns
On the street the Tramp runs into the Millionaire who is back from Europe and again inebriated.  The Millionaire takes the Tramp home and willingly gives him $1,000 to help the girl.  However, thieves hiding in the Millionaire’s home interrupt everything, knocking out the Millionaire in the process.  Though the thieves are routed, the arriving police think the Tramp stole the Millionaire’s money.  When the Millionaire regains consciousness, of course he doesn’t recognize the Tramp (he never does when he’s sober).  But the Tramp manages to flee with the $1,000 cash and gallantly deliver it all to the Girl.  When she asks when she can meet him again, the Tramp resignedly says it will be awhile.  Shortly thereafter the Tramp is cuffed by the police and sentenced to prison.

9.  9 Months Later

9 months later we see that the Girl’s sight has been restored, and she is now running a posh flower shop with the Grandmother.  The Tramp is released from prison, but he looks more tattered than ever and doesn’t know anything about the girl.  He gets into a scuffle with some delinquent boys with pea-shooters in front of her shop, and the now-sighted Girl looks on from her store window with amusement.  The Tramp is stunned to see her and joyfully speechless.  When the Girl condescendingly offers him a coin, he refuses, so she insists and puts it into his hand.  Of course she doesn’t recognize his face, but she does recognize the touch, and she now knows that it is her mysterious benefactor. But this disheveled derelict before her is not the polished gentleman she had imagined him to be. The emotional look on her face, and the return look on the Tramp’s face, is one of the most moving closings in film history. 

There are two noteworthy elements of Chaplin’s mise-en-scene in City Lights that make the kind of story-telling in which he is engaged particularly effective:
  • Music 
    Although there is no spoken dialogue, sound is especially important in this film, because it used to convey characteristic leitmotifs associated with the principal characters.  These leitmotifs drive and energize the visually presented segments, and so they sustain the dynamic tempo of the film.
  • Eyes 
    Since seeing the true nature of things is an important theme of this dialogue-less film, Chaplin’s focus on the eyes and facial expressions is crucial to the presentation.  The Tramp’s eyes and eyebrows are characteristically highlighted with makeup to emphasize his innocence.  His is not a blank stare, but instead often a look of openness.  The sightless Girl’s visage is always searchingly directed outward.  She, too, is a perceiver.  And look, too, at the facial expressions of some of the other important characters, such as the mercurial Millionaire and the Tramp’s ruthless boxing-match opponent.
But it is that closing scene of the Tramp and the Girl coming together that makes City Lights the classic that it is – even though that scene has been the subject of varied interpretations [6].  Does the girl’s final look of compassion represent sad resignation to the realities of this world? Or does it represent a sense of recognition to the realities of what love really means?  And the Tramp’s final look is one of apprehension and hopeful expectation.  You have to see it for yourself.

  1. David Robinson Chaplin: His Life and Art, Paladin, (1985).
  2. Gary Giddins, City Lights: The Immortal Tramp”, The Criterion Collection, 11 November 2013).  
  3. Alan Vanneman, “Looking at Charlie: City Lights: An Occasional Series on the Life and Work of Charlie Chaplin”, Bright Lights Film Journal, (31 January 2009).
  4. Roger Ebert, “City Lights”, RogerEbert.com, (21 December 1997).  
  5. I have commented elsewhere about the pseudo human “right” of dignity.  See for example my reviews of  The Last Command (1928), Bicycle Thieves (1948), and Tangsir (1974).
  6. Marilyn Ferdinand, “City Lights (1931)”, Ferdy on Films, (2012).  

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