So City Lights is a movie made by Charlie Chaplin…
Seriously! It said so right there on the box. And in the credits. And then Charlie Chaplin showed up as the little tramp. Right there on my TV screen! Charlie Chaplin!
It might as well have said A CHARLIE M’F’ING CHAPLIN JOINT. Apologies, Spike Lee, but I’m 99% sure Chaplin started that “Joint” thing. I’d seen my share of Chaplin flicks. I’m very fond of The Great Dictator and Gold Rush. Two obvious choices, right? But they’re obvious for a good reason. City Lights meanwhile had been built up as the pinnacle of Chaplin’s filmography, the ultimate co-mingling of his pathos and humor. Without having seen Chaplin’s entire filmography, I’ll go along with that. But as a casual Chaplin aficionado (I’ve always preferred Keaton and Lloyd if we’re ranking the big three silent comedians) could City Lights turn that casual appreciation into full-blown fanatacism? Does the film’s pathos become the cherry on top of Chaplin’s comedy sundae?
By the time of City Light’s release in 1931 silent cinema had been all but steamrolled by talkies. Chaplin committed two years of production on the film knowing he was working in an outdated medium. He believed that the Tramp would not survive the conversion to sound. The Museum of Modern Art published notes about the film a few years ago that explained Chaplin’s difficult position:
He correctly perceived that the Tramp would lose his poetry and grace if he were coerced into the leveling mundanity of human speech. He foresaw that sound would force him to sacrifice the “pace and tempo” he had so laboriously perfected.
City Lights, however, is not without a synchronized audio track. One might say that Chaplin was not opposed to sound – he was opposed to the limitations of verbal language in storytelling. He used audio to make fun of talkies (he used unintelligible mumbling, much like a Charlie Brown adult, to mimic speech patterns) and establish mood through music, music composed by Chaplin himself.
The Tramp meets a blind girl selling flowers (Virginia Cherrill) on a street corner. He’s smitten with her, but due to a very Chaplin-esque sequence of comic timing and coincidence, she believes he’s a wealthy man. That evening the Tramp prevents a drunken millionaire (Harry Myers) from committing suicide by jumping into the reservoir with a cinderblock. The millionaire brings the Tramp back to his home, offers him a change of clothes. Then they go out for a brazen night on the town where the Tramp inadvertently causes much disgust and chaos among the other wealthy socialites. Coming back from their late night escapades the Tramp and the Millionaire happen across the Flower Girl and the Tramp asks for some money to buy all of the girl’s flowers.
Erma Bombeck once said, “There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt. And how do you know laughter if there is no pain to compare it with?” Chaplin would have been a huge fan of Erma Bombeck. The rest of City Lights unfolds as the Tramp endures the realities of being destitute in a world presided over by the wealthy and well-to-do.
Upon sobering, the Millionaire does not remember the Tramp and has the butler forcibly remove him from the house. Later that day, the drunken Millionaire again finds the Tramp and embraces him as an old friend. The best visual gags in City Lights come about as the Tramps fortunes rise and fall according to the sobriety of the Millionaire. At the same time, there’s a melancholy permeating the tenuous relationship. With lower inhibitions, the Millionaire treats the Tramp like an old college chum. In the light of day, the Tramp becomes a blight upon a society that hasn’t the time or the compassion to acknowledge the Tramp’s humanity.
When the Flower Girl falls ill, she and her elderly grandmother cannot afford to pay rent. The Tramp learns of their situation and takes on a sequence of jobs to try to help them pay their bills. He becomes a street sweeper and then a boxer, but neither rewards his efforts. Without hope, the Tramp again bumps into the drunken Millionaire, newly returned from Europe. The Millionaire gives the Tramp $1000 to pay for her rent. He’s so out of touch he believes $1000 is a reasonable sum for rent. Two burglars happened to have been hiding in the Millionaire’s home. They knock out the Millionaire, and the Tramp calls the police. Through a ballet of confusion and mistaken identity, the Tramp gets blamed for the theft and takes off with the cash. So it goes. After giving it to the Flower Girl for rent and for a special treatment to restore her eyesight, the Tramp is arrested and jailed.
Upon his release, the Tramp visits the corner where the Flower Girl sold her flowers, but cannot find her. With her sight restored, the girl has opened a successful flower shop with the grandmother. The Tramp finds a small flower in the gutter outside the shop. He stops to pick it up, recognizes the Girl in the shop. His sadness melts, his eyes light up at the sight of her. The Girl offers the forgotten man a fresh flower and a coin. Embarrassed, he turns to leave, unable to confront her and reveal himself as her benefactor. The Girl reaches for his hand to give him the coin and recognizes his touch.
“You,” she says.
He nods. “You can see me now?”
She begins to cry. “Yes I can see now.”
The Tramp has helped shatter the only misconception that fell in his favor.
And now I’ve gone and blathered a Cliff’s Notes edition of Chaplin. I almost loathe myself for it, but I’ve done it to adequately serve this ending, a lyrical moment of silent perfection. About this scene Chaplin says, “[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.” James Agee, author, journalist, critic and poet, called the final scene “the highest moment in the movies.” I spent this entire writeup building to this brief moment in an 82-minute movie. Some scenes stay with you forever. This is one of them.
I still have more Chaplin to watch, but I’m pretty confident that this final scene and that pathos cherry do indeed mark the pinnacle of Chaplin’s oeuvre. City Light’s greatest accomplishment is the accommodation of both heart and humor. Chaplin’s comedy presents the stage for tragedy and melodrama, the spoonful of sugar to make the weepies go down. So… maybe the cherry’s the humor and the rest of the sundae is the pathos.
Or maybe I just need a new metaphor and this ice cream business is a bunch of bollocks. Chaplin would have rewritten this 300 times to make it right. I’m just going to hit publish. This is why I’m never going to have “A Joint” to call my own.