By Edward Copeland
Sound features were firmly established by 1931, but the silent superstar Charlie Chaplin wouldn't join the chattering crowd that easily and 80 years ago today he released to the entire U.S. after N.Y. and L.A. premieres not only another silent film starring Chaplin as the Little Tramp but one of the greatest films Chaplin had yet produced, City Lights.
City Lights was followed five years later by his other post-sound era silent Modern Times, though like Times, Lights wasn't purely silent, incorporating sound effects, incomprehensible dialogue and a score by Chaplin. Both are masterpieces and classics, though I slightly prefer Modern Times for its ability to better balance its comedy with its pathos and social commentary. For the most part, City Lights keeps its farcical and touching moments segregated from one another, but it ultimately works with one of the most touching endings in the history of film, accomplished with a simple closeup.
Before we get there, let's get back to the beginning of City Lights, where the officials of its unnamed city are set to dedicate a "monument to peace and prosperity." Of course, once the tarp rises who should be lying in the arms of the main statue but the Little Tramp himself. The officials demand he get down, shouting in nonsensical "dialogue" that seems to foreshadow the way adults would speak in those animated Peanuts TV specials decades later. Getting the tramp off the new installment proves easier said than done as at first his pants get speared by the sword of another statue on the monument, then when everyone stops to salute during the National Anthem (which is heard) and, finally, he ends up facing the hand of the monument's third statue, where it appears as if he's thumbing his nose at the crowd and perhaps Chaplin is, since there isn't much peace or prosperity in the Little Tramp's life.
Once he's disengaged himself from the monument and returned to traversing the streets, he continues the gag-oriented nature of the film, being taunted by boys selling newspapers on corners, finding himself fascinated by a nude statue in a store window, oblivious to the opening and closing sidewalk platform behind him which he keeps barely missing as he steps forward and back, and, finally, meeting her. She is the unnamed flower girl. In fact, aside from one of the boxers in a scene that comes later, no character in the movie has first or last names. In the credits, she's listed only as a blind girl (Virginia Cherrill), and when the tramp first encounters her, he doesn't immediately realize she lacks sight. He finds her sitting on a stoop and she offers to sell him a flower and he offers to take one, but she drops it and he picks it up. She gropes the ground for it before asking if he already picked it up and that's when the tramp realizes she's blind. During their encounter, several cars had arrived and parked along the curb adjacent to the stoop. The tramp gives the girl what little change he has and at the same time one of the car's wealthy owner's returns, gets in the car and drives off, leading the girl to mistakenly believe that the tramp had left without his change and was a man of means. Not wanting to ruin her illusion, the tramp backs away quietly. The girl later return home to the apartment she shares with her grandmother (Florence Lee) and plays the music she loves, still beaming from the encounter with the man she believes was wealthy, imagining how in an ideal world someone such as him could change her life.
While I was gathering art for this post, City Lights may have turned out to be the film that had the most screenshots on the Web that I wanted to grab with the intention of using, but that makes sense. When watching the best silent movies, not just by Chaplin, more so than with their sound counterparts, it's nearly all imagery that captures your attention. The story certainly plays a major role in those pre-talkie classics and shape their worth as well, but it's the pictures on the screen that draw your attention. It almost makes it absurd to attempt to write about a brilliant silent such as City Lights; I almost want to just post various photos from the film and let the shots speak for themselves. I could probably waste all my free Blogger art space on City Lights photos alone, but I had no luck finding shots for some of the scenes I wanted such as late in the film when burglars are hiding as the tramp and the eccentric millionaire (Harry Myers) arrive back at the rich man's mansion. That reminds me. We haven't discussed that millionaire, since he is the film's third most important character after all.
That night, the tramp, wandering aimlessly under the intoxicating infatuation that his encounter with the blind girl cast upon him, meanders down the steps toward the river, still smelling the flower he bought from her. He doesn't seem to notice at first the other man there — a man whose intoxication is very real, as real as his intention to end his life. The tramp finally notices that the man has tied one end of a rope around his neck and the other end to a large rock with the intention of drowning himself. The tramp steps in to try to stop him and through a series of mishaps at various times, both end up in the water alone or together, once even with the tramp somehow getting the rope around his neck. Finally, soaked, they both are on dry land again and the rich man declares the tramp his friend for life and decides to take him home with him to dry him out (at least clotheswise), though they do encounter a suspicious policeman as they make their way clear of the river. You would think that perhaps Chaplin would wring some pathos out of the suicide attempt, but the entire sequence plays for pure farce as well, especially since, for the purpose of City Lights, the millionaire basically functions as a plot device to allow the main thread to stay in motion and to provide a great deal of the comedy and road blocks for the tramp's quest to help the blind girl.
Once the two new best friends arrive at the rich man's mansion, despite the suspicious looks from the millionaire's butler (Allan Garcia), the millionaire learns that his wife has left him for good, prompting him to return momentarily to his suicidal state, wielding a gun, but the tramp stops him again and the man once again is grateful and forces the tramp to join him in more drinking. He is so sloshed at this point, he doesn't seem to notice that while he pours them drinks, he's also pouring the bottle's contents down the tramp's pants. After replacing the tramp's ratty clothes with nice duds, the millionaire decides that the best way to forget your troubles is to hit the town, so the two drunks head out again to a restaurant to eat, drink and be raucous. Now, it would hardly be a Chaplin film if there weren't some comic doings involving the eating of food, and that happens at the eatery, where a celebration is going on, causing confetti to fly everywhere, paper strings that mix with the tramp's plate of pasta, where he proceeds to go from eating the noodles to try to chomp his way through the confetti as well, even standing, ready to climb to the ceiling until the millionaire spots what he is doing and cuts the confetti and gets him back to the food on his plate. More chaos ensues when a man comes in roughing up a woman and the tramp takes offense, as does the millionaire, starting a brawl. Once that settles down, there's still time for vigorous dancing before the two go back to the mansion, though the butler has the tramp sleep outside and the passed-out millionaire can't argue.
The next morning, as the tramp awakes on the steps of the mansion, he spies the blind girl selling her flowers on the corner. He worms his way back into the mansion past the butler. He doesn't have to venture far into the estate until he finds the millionaire, still lingering between the worlds of the drunken and the hungover. He asks the wealthy man if he can borrow some money to buy a flower and the millionaire, without giving it a thought, passes $10 to the tramp who, overjoyed with the good fortune, rushes to the corner and buys all the flowers that the blind girl is selling. She tells him that she doesn't have that much change, but the tramp tells her not to worry and she tells him she might as well journey home now since her day's flower supply is exhausted. The tramp tells her to hold on and he returns to the mansion, leaving the huge flower supply, and asking the millionaire if he may borrow his car. The rich man, eager to return to sleep, easily surrenders his keys, and the tramp drives the blind girl back home in luxury. After he carefully sees that she gets back to where she lives (and which he now knows) and giving her a courteous kiss on the hand, he bids her farewell. The blind girl once again is enthused by her encounter with the "wealthy man," excitedly sharing the tale with her grandmother. Meanwhile, the Little Tramp drives back to the mansion, but by this time, the millionaire has sobered up to a fully hungover state and told the butler that he is "out" as far as anybody is concerned. Despite repeated attempts by the tramp to get back inside the mansion, he finally gives up and just leaves, taking the man's car with him. After driving around awhile, he returns to the mansion and is again spurned by the butler, only this time the millionaire comes out. Unfortunately, when he's sober, he doesn't recognize his "friend for life" and just takes the car keys and drives away, leaving the tramp back on the streets to fend for himself once again.
Back on his own again, the Little Tramp decides to check on the blind girl, but he fails to find her in any of her usual spots, so he decides to check out her apartment. He scales the steps and a barrel so he can peer in the window to her dwelling where he sees a doctor and her grandmother hovering over her. The doctor says the girl has a fever. A large man who lives in the dwelling below the girl and her grandmother comes out and spots the tramp, obviously assuming he's a peeping tom. Quick to get away, the tramp scrambles away, kicking over the barrel, flooding the patio and soaking the man. As the tramp continues to wander the streets, lost in his thoughts, he happens to be spotted by the millionaire, who once again is blotto and remembers their special bond and insists he go back with him to his house for a party. The festivities are a wild one and the tramp seems to be a hit with everyone. Sure, there are the usual mishaps, such as mistaking a bald man wearing a hat as one of the many decorative melons and trying to eat a piece of his scalp. And it's always likely that you'll end up swallowing a whistle and it will keep going off when a musician tries to play his instrument, but hey, these things are bound to happen at parties with the rich in the 1930s. One thing the Little Tramp doesn't realize about the party is that it's a bon voyage party for the rich man's trip — the millionaire plans to leave the next morning on an ocean trip to Europe. The evening wraps up early and the tramp climbs into the rich man's bed, but apparently the millionaire's drunkenness isn't enough to make him forget that he usually doesn't share his bed with other men and he has his butler, despite the tramp's protests, toss him out again. It's a true slapstick battle to get the tramp to surrender the mattress, put his own clothes back on and leave the premises. Some "friends for life" definitely have expiration dates.
One thing that always makes the Little Tramp such an endearing character to movie audiences is that the tramp, a homeless man, usually broke and jobless, always puts others' interests before his own. Within the ragged clothing and empty stomach, an empathetic heart constantly beats for those in need, even if helping them comes at a high cost. Rationally, it makes no logical sense how this Little Tramp has survived on the streets so long and looks no worse than he does, but then that's the magic Chaplin imbued this character with most of the time. So, with his friend the millionaire overseas, he's determined to keep up the charade that he's wealthy for the blind girl and do what he can to help her. So the tramp does the unthinkable — he finds himself a job so he can continue to help her. Unfortunately, the job he finds stinks — literally. The tramp becomes a street cleaner, assigned to clear the roads of animal shit. He finds a lot of it, too. After some of the usual defecation, an elephant crosses his path and after that comes a seemingly endless line of horses, causing the tramp to turn and find another street that might need some cleaning of a less fecal variety. Selflessness can only go so far. Unbeknownst to the tramp (and the blind girl as well), she needs help more than ever. The grandmother receives a note from the landlord telling her that the rent is $22 past due and if not paid by the next morning, her and her granddaughter will be evicted. The grandmother goes out and tries to sell flowers herself. Later, the tramp drops by the blind girl's apartment, keeping up the rich man charade. He notices in the newspaper an article that reports a doctor in Vienna has discovered a miracle cure for blindness and offers it free to the poor. He also notices the note addressed to her and she asks him to read it to her and he does without thinking and she gets quite upset about the news of the imminent eviction. The tramp, still under the guise of a millionaire, tells the girl not to fret, he will take care of the rent for her — and the operation as well, but he better get going. Sadly, he dawdled too long as his boss fires him, telling him that he's late for the last time. The tramp must find a way that night to get $22 to keep the girl and her grandmother in their home.
Desperate for cash, the tramp happens by a boxing club. A fighter (Eddie McAuliffe) makes a proposal: If the tramp will fight him and take a dive, they'll split the purse. The tramp thinks his dream has come true, as long as the boxer promises he won't really hurt him and he promises. Unfortunately, a man rushes in with a telegram for the boxer (where he receives the only name of any character in the movie) telling Eddie Mason to get out of town because the cops are hot on his tail, so Eddie splits. The boxing promoter brings in another man to take his place in the bout but this fighter (Hank Mann) has no interest in the same deal with the tramp and informs him that it will be "winner take all." The new fighter even gets peeved at someone in the training room and knocks him out before they even get to sanctioned boxing. The tramp notices another fighter (Victor Alexander) who is performing all sorts of rituals involving a horseshoe and a rabbit's foot. The tramp asks why he is doing that and the boxer says those are his good luck charms. The Little Tramp asks if he can tray a little of the luck and the boxer lets him try but a little later, that boxer returns from his bout unconscious, so the tramp tries to undo all the "luck" he placed on himself.
Unable to avoid the match and still desperate for the funds to save the apartment for the girl and her grandmother, the tramp enters the ring. His initial strategy hinges on avoiding the other boxer as much as possible, trying to use the referee (Eddie Baker) as a human shield. Sadly, the ref gets wise to this gambit rather quickly and gets out of the way and the tramp starts taking some blows, though the tramp manages to throw some back (even leaping into the other fighter's arms at one point). Ever the dancer, the tramp keeps moving as fast as he can and before they know it, he has the ref and the other boxer fighting each other, but that doesn't last long either and the tramp's opponent lands a good one. Fortunately, the bell signals the end of a round and the tramp goes to his corner. While his support people try to talk sense to him, the dazed Little Tramp hallucinates that the blind girl kneels beside him and somehow that inspires him and he goes back swinging. In fact, the ref can't keep up because the two boxers keep hitting the mat. One goes down and the referee begins the count to 10, but the fighter rises in time. The ref turns around and the other fighter has fallen flat so he begins a new count. Again, before he can reach 10, he's up again and the other is down. On and on it goes. At one point during the bout, the tramp somehow gets the cord the rings the bell for each round wrapped around his neck so each time he moves, it seems as if a round has stopped and started and stopped and started over and over and over again. They finally fix that snafu and the other fighter regains his bearings enough to land the knockout blow on our poor Little Tramp and he has to be carried out of the ring. He's lost and failed to win any purse to help the girl and her grandmother stay in their home.
Here is the one moment, in terms of the passage of time, that just doesn't make sense to me in City Lights. Once the tramp has recuperated enough from his fight enough to hit the streets again that very same night, he runs into the millionaire, suitably drunk, and eager to take him back to his mansion. The film gives no sense of how much time has expired but it doesn't quite add up. No. 1: How short was that European trip that rich man went on? No. 2: How long did the tramp work as a street sweeper? We see that he got a job but his boss fires him almost immediately because he is "late again." No. 3: The girl and her grandmother are to be evicted the next day. If we assume that he got fired and fought the night before the threatened eviction, how long had the millionaire been gone and how long had the tramp worked as a street sweeper? Had he not saved anything yet to give to the girl? I know. It's silly of me to start playing with logic, but the timing just doesn't seem to add up to me. Even with my questions about how all these events can occur in a timeline that makes sense, it doesn't detract from City Lights' status as one of Chaplin's masterpieces and a classic in the history of film.
Before the tramp and the millionaire arrive at the mansion, two burglars (Albert Austin, Joe Van Meter) busy themselves trying to find goodies in the rich man's home. When they hear arrivals coming (let's face it, it may be a silent movie, but you can tell the rich man is a noisy drunk), the crooks hide. As the tramp and the millionaire relax on the couch, the rich man starts to get melancholy again, but the tramp talks him out of it. The burglars keep watching, waiting for the chance to make their move, one of them armed with a blackjack. The tramp happens to feel under the couch and discovers the gun that the rich man had tried to off himself with once before. He places it on the table behind them and begins to tell the rich man about the blind girl. The millionaire tells him not to worry and asks him if $1,000 will be enough. The tramp can't believe his good fortune as the rich man hands him the money. The robbers feel pretty fortunate as well. Before he knows it, one of the burglars has knocked the rich man unconscious. Now that the tramp knows they are there, he proceeds to run, stopping to call the police and to grab the gun, causing the burglars to flee. The butler enters the room and gets the wrong idea. The tramp tries to explain what happened, but with no burglars, the butler remains skeptical. A cop comes in and the butler demands the tramp be searched. They find the money but the tramp insists that the millionaire gave it to him, but when they arouse the unconscious man, he's back to not knowing who the tramp even is. The tramp grabs the cash back, turns out the lights and a chase ensues. He gets out the front door as more police arrive and he points them in the direction of the house, saying they have the crooks in there as he quickly gets away, cash in hand.
Furiously on the run, convinced that no one will ever believe the truth, the Little Tramp heads straight for the blind girl's apartment. He hands her a bunch of the cash and says it's for the rent. He thinks some more and gives her the rest of the $1,000 and tells her to get that operation. He also tells her that he's going away for awhile. Soon after, he's on the street and a detective recognizes him and he willingly goes with him to jail. The calendar flips as the months pass and we're told it's autumn as the Little Tramp gains his freedom once again. He's taunted by the newsboys once again. As he walks the streets, he notices a flower shop and a woman who works there points out to the blind girl that she seems to have an admirer as the Little Tramp gazes at her through the window. She laughs at him, but notices that he dropped the flower he wore on his coat and it sort of crumbled.
The girl comes out of the shop to try to give the tramp a new flower and some change, but he tries to sneak away but she calls after him and chases him a little. He stops and she gives him the fresh flower. As she takes his hand to put some change in it, she can tell by the feel who it is. It's one of the most touching, magical moments in cinema history. "It's you?" she says uncertainly and he nods shyly.
"You can see," he asks her and she tells him yes, still in shock that her mysterious benefactor, the man responsible for changing her life so much for the better wasn't what she imagined: a dreamy rich man who would return someday to sweep her off her feet, but a street person even more down-on-his-luck than she was. It's so touching, it's breathtaking. Then Chaplin the director, utilizing Chaplin the actor, gives City Lights a final image that really explains why the closeup was invented in the first place.