A World War shaped a generation, a tyrant was rising in Germany, the Wall Street Crash ushered in a Great Depression, and prohibition gave rise to wider organised crime. The progressive touch of the twentieth century reached across the globe and altered everything in its path… except for the Little Tramp who waddled back in 1931 for another romantic adventure: City Lights.
Shooting began in 1928 when silence was golden, but the success of primitive talkies like The Jazz Singer sparked an inexorable exodus towards sound productions. Chaplin endured great pressure from studios to reimagine City Lights as a talkie. However, his hesitance to changing formula, popularity, and overall commanding influence was so powerful that he successfully unveiled silence in the sound era. A small joke towards his distaste of sound is layered into the opening of a Town Official proudly unsheathing a statue. The voice emanating from the orator was in fact Chaplin’s own, but funnelled through a paper reed instrument to render dialogue useless.
During production, Chaplin feared releasing a quickly outmoded silent picture, but the standing ovation at the Los Angeles premier and tear twinkling in guest of honour Albert Einstein’s eye quickly concreted his convictions. City Lights went on to become the most successful of all Chaplin’s pictures, and influenced greats from Andrei Tarkovsky to Orson Welles. It certainly demonstrates Chaplin’s greatness to turn an outdated format into a cinematic classic during a whirlwind of a technological craze.
City Lights is simply perfection at the hands of a perfectionist. Chaplin is the epitome of an Auteur; he wrote, directed, edited and even composed the score behind camera, whilst starring in his iconic role in front. A short scene of the Little Tramp purchasing a flower from a Blind Girl (Virginia Cherrill) vexed Chaplin who was unable to find a satisfactory manner for the heroine to mistake the Tramp for a wealthy man. This resulted in 342 takes. But despite this rigorous control over every infinitesimal moment, City Lights not only displays iconic Chaplin sequences, but unfolds them effortlessly.
An infamous scene shows the timid Tramp avoiding any actual fighting in a boxing match. The sequence builds upon itself with countless mishaps and changes of direction to keep us engaged. To consider the lengths to which this scene was designed, rehearsed, shot, re-shot and edited to appear instinctive renews a marvel at the balletic naturalism of the sequence.
The great perfection of City Lights is Chaplin creating a frame to best present his beloved icon. The Yukon mountains of Gold Rush, the spectacle of The Circus and the dizzying world of Modern Times all capture an essence of the Little Tramp, but none so poignantly or plainly as City Lights since The Kid. Each film is a masterpiece, but presents the Tramp beyond a natural setting; travelling to the Yukon shows too much determination, working in the factories too much skill, and a circus is simply a bag of tricks.
In the metropolis of City Lights, which Robert Sherwood astutely notes is a ‘weird city, with confusing resemblances to London, Los Angeles, Naples, Paris, Tangiers and Council Bluffs. It is no city on Earth and it is all cities’, the Tramp is in his natural home. Lost in the tide of success and classes. Chaplin describes his hero as ‘A tramp, a gentlemen, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure’.
What better way is there to explore a constant outsider than a story in which the Tramp is mistaken by the Blind Girl for a millionaire, and by a millionaire for a friend? One who can never see him, and the other who only recognises him at certain hours through beer goggles. The Tramp finds himself thrust in to society yet always removed, embarrassing himself in polite company at dance halls and dinners, or slaving at desperate jobs to provide the basic veil of wealth.
These moments may not seem so funny if it was not for two things, Chaplin’s golden heart and unshakeable dignity. In one excellent scene, the Tramp arrives home with his drunken friend who donates his expensive car to the Tramp. Chaplin spots a wealthy gentleman puffing a cigar and pursues him down the street. The Tramp pounces on the discarded remnants of the cigar, kicking another homeless man out the way and, without a wisp of irony, hops in his luxury car and drives off.
Is this not the root of Chaplin’s genius? He explains the phenomenon himself ‘Even funnier than a man who has been made ridiculous is the man who, having had something funny happen to him, refuses to admit that anything out of the way has happened, and attempts to maintain his dignity’. The visage of the Tramp becomes clear, his manner attempts to remain dignified in all aspects, his cigarette case of stubs, his tattered waistcoat, rotting cane and hat enforce his pride but make him look all the more ridiculous.
But as Chaplin is not a one track record. For all the laughter he creates, he has an immense ability to tap into our heart. One small scene entwines the laughter and poignancy of Chaplin; the Tramp has the money for the Blind Girl and uncurls the money she needs, stuffing a few notes in to his pockets for himself. She kisses him gladly and he quickly gives her the rest. The Tramp may not be a totally honest man, he is desperate after all, but this makes his generosity shine all the more brilliantly.
Sound was but a fraction of the mutation cinema would endure on its evolutionary road to a shape beyond comprehension or dreams of founding filmmakers. Sadly and strangely, I find a certain grudging reluctance to return to these works inherent in certain cinema goers. Monochrome, slapstick and silence are exploited as weakness. But then City Lights begins, sighs are replaced by laughter, glazed eyes become fixed, and finally shed a tear as the Blind Girl realises the true identity of her millionaire. Chaplin’s smile says it all.
Every scene holds a classic moment, so from the top of my head the classic moment here depicts the Tramp wobbling to his chair in a dance hall. A plate of spaghetti is placed before him and his rich friend. The Tramp proceeds to slurp up string by string but accidentally entwines party strings and follows this trail up and up and up and up.