City Lights (1931): Charlie Chaplin’s Most Poignant Masterpiece

by Paul Batters

The films of Charlie Chaplin are perhaps the easiest to watch and the most difficult to write about – easy because they are such an incredible joy to the heart and soul of the individual and difficult (for myself at least) because it feels like sacrilege to even try and analyse the work of the great master of cinema. Chaplin’s works are true masterpieces of cinema, reaching across time and space with powerful emotion, shaped and built with precision in every aspect of the film making process. Despite the enormity of the work that Chaplin put into his films, they remain deeply personal in how they touch us and the Little Tramp remains a character that we all find in a facet of ourselves. For me, City Lights (1931) is an incredible blend of pathos and humour that is also one of his most emotional and touching films, where we all find ourselves hopelessly lost in the sheer beauty of the story whilst still laughing at the Little Tramp. Indeed, City Lights (1931) just may be Chaplin at his most poetic.

The many films of Chaplin reveal an incredible richness not only in story but also in tones and qualities. For all the pathos and sentiment that is evident in City Lights, there is also Chaplin’s classic irreverence for pomposity and hypocrisy as well as slapstick and farce.

The great Roger Ebert, in his review of City Lights beautifully describes the beauty of Chaplin in the following way:

‘Children who see them at a certain age don’t notice they’re “silent” but notice only that every frame speaks clearly to them, without all those mysterious words that clutter other films. Then children grow up, and forget this wisdom, but the films wait patiently and are willing to teach us again’.

The film opens with a classic dig at the aforementioned pomposity and hypocrisy. The scene reveal a group of well-healed citizens and dignitaries around a monument to ‘Peace And Prosperity’ that is about to be unveiled. After a series of long-winded speeches, where Chaplin effectively uses sound to convey the meaninglessness of their words, the monument is unveiled to reveal the Little Tramp asleep in the arms of one of the monument’s statues. What follows is a hilarious scene, with an apologetic Tramp getting himself near impaled on the sword of one of the statues, followed by a perplexed and angry crowd holding onto their wrath when the National Anthem is played. The Tramp tries to be upstanding, even in his ridiculous position but cannot contain himself, as he soon uses the features of the monument in a farcical display before making his getaway.

The Little Tramp goes from one situation to another, when the pace of the film shifts to perhaps one of cinema’s most touching and beautiful moments. Crossing the street, with a deft stop-short and duck from a traffic cop, the Tramp nonchalantly steps through a car and out onto the sidewalk. This hilarious moment becomes something more when he encounters a beautiful flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) on the street, who has been ignored by well-to-do passers-by. In the process of selling a flower, the Tramp discovers she is blind and gives her the only money he has to purchase the flower. However, his earlier exiting from the car and the owner of the vehicle returning leaves the flower girl thinking that the kind purchaser of her flower is a rich man. Here, Chaplin’s craft is at its’ most superb by using sound without using sound as a plot device which sets the tone of the whole story and sets up the ending. For all the Tramp’s mischievousness, his truly kind heart is revealed when he sees her mistaking him for the man who re-enters his car and tips away, not wanting to ruin the moment for the flower girl. But he is taken by her and sits quietly nearby, just to be near her.

Later that evening, the Tramp saves a millionaire (Harry Myers) who is attempting to commit suicide. In the midst of tragedy, Chaplin uses the moment for brilliant dark humour when the rock the millionaire uses to drown himself, ends up tied around the Tramp’s neck. Drunk and despondent, the millionaire invites the Tramp to his home where they drink champagne and he even gives the Tramp money after a night on the town. As they drive, the Tramp sees the girl selling flowers on her corner and stops not only to purchase all her flowers but also gives her a ride home in the millionaire’s car. Thus, the blind girl’s misguidance that her kind benefactor is a millionaire is further perpetuated.

But the Tramp’s rich new found friend sours when the millionaire sobers up and refuses to acknowledge him, having him thrown out of the house. But later the millionaire, drunk again, sees the Tramp on the street and again invites him home.

The Tramp seeks the flower girl and finds the humble home where she lives with her grandmother (Florence Lee). He discovers that the girl is very ill and unable to sell flowers, which the grandmother takes up instead. The Tramp, determined to help her, becomes a street-sweeper to help pay the rent and buy groceries. He becomes that determined to help that the Tramp even takes part in a boxing match, desperate for money after losing his job. A comedy of errors sees the Tramp face a serious fighter and not the intended opponent. The fight is hilarity unconfined and one of comedy’s most famous boxing scenes. But as all comedy peeled back, it reveals deeper tragedy, when the Tramp is badly beaten and the prize money is not forthcoming.

A third meeting with the again-inebriated millionaire will prove a mix of fortunes. The Tramp tells the story of the blind girl and how an operation will save her and her sight. Moved by the story, the millionaire gives the Tramp a great deal of money but again fate steps in to blacken the moment, when two burglars break in and attack the millionaire. By the time the police arrive, the burglars have fled and the Tramp is blamed for the robbery when the millionaire, affected by the attack and his alcohol intake, cannot remember giving money to the Tramp.

Knowing he is doomed, the Tramp evades the police and manages to get the money to the girl before he is captured. In a heart-rending scene, he explains to the flower girl that he will be going away for some time. The police finally arrest him and he is taken to prison.

Much focus has been made on the famous ending and it would be remiss of me not to honor it by mentioning it. I have refrained from over-cooking what has become cinema folklore and has been discussed at great length elsewhere. After his release, the Tramp returns to the flower girl’s corner to find she is not there. What follows can be best summed up by watching the very scene itself, and consider the words of Chaplin himself, whilst viewing it:

“I’ve had that once or twice, he said, …in City Lights just the last scene … I’m not acting …. Almost apologetic, standing outside myself and looking … It’s a beautiful scene, beautiful, and because it isn’t over-acted.”

Chaplin’s genius crafts the film in its’ entirety, employing subtle touches to bring the close to a personal and emotional ending. The construction of the film flows into this perfect finale, and our love and admiration for the Little Tramp is perhaps never greater – as we see him willing to suffer and risk all, so that she can be saved and find happiness. For all the love he has for her, the Tramp is even willing to risk losing her. Chaplin leaves us breathless as we anticipate the finale, drawing us into the tragic comedy of the Tramp’s journey.

It was a unique film, up to that point, in terms of Chaplin’s methodology in creating it. From its’ inception in early 1928 (from which a number of scenarios were considered) till its’ final release in January 1931, Chaplin found himself on an odyssey. According to David Robinson’s biography, Chaplin described the process of constructing a film as like being in a labyrinth and trying to find a way out. Nothing could be truer in this statement regarding the approach to City Lights. It was also a film where the incredible workload taken on by Chaplin meant a severely diminished social life, with his focus on writing, production, directing, editing and starring in the film. Amazingly, Chaplin would also write the musical score as well, to the astonishment of the industry.

When conceiving the story in 1928, sound had made its’ appearance with Warner Bros. release of The Jazz Singer (1927) and the first all-talking film Lights Of New York (1928). The challenge to have the Tramp speak was enormous but whilst the idea was a novel one, Chaplin was concerned at a number of levels – how would the Tramp speak and sound, would the character lose his universal appeal by talking and how would the Tramp act once the language of pantomime was abandoned. More to the point, whole audiences worldwide would be alienated once the Tramp spoke in English. Additionally, sound techniques were still primitive and not particularly successful and the perfectionist in Chaplin would not have tolerated such shortcomings. In the end, Chaplin refused to have the Tramp talk and the film would remain silent, save for a few moments where sound is brilliantly employed to drive the story.

Pre-production would continue through most of 1928, punctuated by personal tragedy, when on August 28th his mother Hannah died. The tragedy of his mother’s life, the difficulty he had with his mother’s mental illness combined with his own tragic, Dickensian upbringing, is well-known history for Chaplin fans. He was deeply affected by her death and pre-production halted for some weeks. Psychiatrist Stephen Weismann in his 2008 book ‘Chaplin: A Life” believes that Chaplin certainly transferred his mother onto the blind girl in City Lights, with the drunken millionaire representing his absent father. It is a theory that certainly holds water, with the Tramp still accepting the drunken millionaire’s invitations despite being rejected and the desperate desire to save the Flower Girl, easily reflecting Chaplin’s own childhood parental fantasies and hopes for happiness.

By the time of the film’s completion in late 1930, silent films had literally disappeared and were considered passé. Yet despite Chaplin’s initial nervousness, City Lights would be an incredible financial and critical success. The critics raved. Irene Thirer in her Daily News review said:

‘City Lights is excruciatingly funny and terribly, terribly sad. It makes you chuckle hysterically. You have the greatest time imaginable, and yet, occasionally you find little hurty lumps in your throat’.

Critics are still raving about it today. Dave Kehr in the Chicago Reader has called it, ‘a beautiful example of Chaplin’s ability to turn narrative fragments into emotional wholes’.  Dan Jardine is Slant Magazine accurately describes it as, ‘the work of a master craftsman in full control of his craft’. Mark Bourne from Film.com perhaps put it best:

‘That final scene. Last week, CNN asked — in “The Screening Room’s Top 10 Romantic Moments” — whether this was the most touching film moment of all time. Could be. Either way, if it doesn’t move you, you’re beyond human reach’.

Watch the film and tell me that your heart doesn’t break before it’s put back together again.

This article is part of the 2018 Charlie Chaplin Blogathon and hosted by Christina Wehrner at https://christinawehner.wordpress.com and ‘Little Bits Of Classics’ https://littlebitsofclassics.wordpress.com. The link for the blogathon and further articles is: https://christinawehner.wordpress.com/2018/04/14/the-charlie-chaplin-blogathon-has-arrived/

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

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10 thoughts on “City Lights (1931): Charlie Chaplin’s Most Poignant Masterpiece

  1. That was remarkably brave and very prescient of him to make a silent film in 1931! He was absolutely right about the appeal of the Tramp in silent films. I’m going to have to give this film another shot. I confess that I saw this earlier in my Chaplin watching career and what I remember best are those moments with his drunk millionaire friend (and his hilarious boxing match). But your lovely description has made me want to see this again

    I always used to think of sound as being an enemy to Chaplin, but you’ve demonstrated how it allowed him to employ music and sound and that it was perhaps a gift to him in providing more options for him. Very interesting!

    So glad you could join in the blogathon!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much Christina! I’m really honoured by your comments and truly appreciate them. It had been a while since I saw City Lights myself and was inspired by the blogathon to see it again and write about it. And found myself weeping as I watched it!

      It was a real pleasure being part of the blogathon. Thanks for the opportunity!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is such a beautiful film. It’s one of Charlie’s best films in my opinion. I agree with Christina that his decision to shoot this as a Silent film was brave as Hollywood had transitioned to film.

    Human emotion and emotive acting needs no dialogue, and these things are just as effective on audiences now as they were back when this film was released. I think that is why his films have stood the test of time so well, there is something about them that is ageless. I also love how he had the tramp remain silent because he was such a universal character, he didn’t want a voice to make the character seem like he belonged to the Americans or English more than to the rest of the world.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It always feel like sacrilege to choose a favourite Chaplin film but City Lights comes very close. It was a courageous decision to stay silent but wasn’t it the right decision! There is such incredible emotion in the film that words aren’t needed – and I think Chaplin respected the audience’s intelligence as well. Best of all, the Little Tramp belonged and still belongs to the whole world. Thanks Maddy for your thoughts! They’re always appreciated.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. City Lights is my favorite Chaplin film – and also Chaplin’s favorite of his own films. Indeed, the theory that Chaplin mirrored his parents in the two characters, the millionaire and the blind girl, makes sense. Also, did you know that Chaplin briefly fired Virginbia Cherrill and hired Georgia Hale for the role of the blind girl?
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂
    Cheers!
    Le
    http://www.criticaretro.blogspot.com

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello and thanks so much for your comments. Yes I was aware of the temporary firing of Cheryl as the blind flower girl. Robinson in his book on Chaplin speaks about it as well. I think City Lights is my favourite Chaplin film as well. Though so many wonderful films of his to enjoy. I will definitely read your contribution! Look forward to it. Best regards!

      Like

  4. “Poetic” is a perfect description of this film. You know, whenever I think about this film, I forget it is silent. The images and the characters are so vivid, I forget there is no spoken dialogue.

    I was lucky to see this film on the big screen a little over a year ago. It was stunning. Chaplin may have been nervous about its release during the early sound era, but it stands head and shoulders above many films released that year, and later.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it is poetry – and there’s even a sense of ballet, especially in the final scene where the two seem to use their bodies in a dance. I think Chaplin even says something about that somewhere.

      How wonderful to see it on the big screen! I hope I get that opportunity some time! It’s truly one of the great films of cinema – and if someone had never seen a Chaplin film, this is the one I would show first. Thank so much for your comments! Best regards!

      Liked by 1 person

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