City Lights

US (1931) Dir. Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin was the last of the silent comedy greats to switch over to sound and obtusely so, finally succumbing over a decade after it was first introduced. Before then while everyone else could be heard on screen, Chaplin clung onto the tacit mystique of his beloved tramp character and made two silent films – 1936’s Modern Times and this film, City Lights.

At its heart this is a gentle story of two social misfits finding each other but also carries with it serious undertones concerning the dangers of alcoholism and the snobbery of the social elite. We first meet The Tramp (Chaplin) when he is found sleeping on top of a statue which is getting its public unveiling. Our peripatetic protagonist then happens upon a blind flower seller (Virginia Cherrill) from whom he buys a flower with his last coin after she mistakes him for a rich man.

Later that night The Tramp stops a drunken man (Harry Myers) from committing suicide, and is repaid by being taken back to his mansion. The next morning after a boozy night out the millionaire sobers up and kicks The Tramp out of his home, not recognising him. This becomes a trend until the millionaire leaves for a one month trip of Europe, during which time The Tramp learns the Flower Girl is ill and behind on her rent.

I’ve only seen a couple of Chaplin’s shorts yet, it is evident from the few feature length films I have seen that a large scale and longer run time is the best platform for him to flex his creative and comedic muscles. Modern Times might have been the apogee of working on a grand scale for Chaplin but City Lights has a stronger emotional centre.

Both films explore poverty and snobbery but whereas Modern Times sees The Tramp fighting against it, here he embraces it and uses it to his advantage. The Flower Girl gets the impression that our hero is rich from hearing a taxi door open in front of her and he sound of his ever present cane. Smitten by her looks and gentle manner, The Tramp doesn’t correct her, partly from a flattered ego but largely from not seeing any harm in it, although this doesn’t seem malicious.  

The relationship with the millionaire is largely comical, the wealthy man chucking his money about and showing the benefits of the connections the affluent have. Chaplin wastes none of the potential of the fish out of water scenario for The Tramp, especially when he and his partner are already tipsy, applying it to a eventful night out at restaurant and later a house party.

These skits run the gamut from flat out slapstick to smart satire an offer both an aesthetic and poetic juxtaposition to the humble and impoverished life of the Flower Girl. The humour is still present for when this pairing is on the screen, but is considerably gentle and born out of The Tramp’s romantic nervousness and false bravado posing as a rich man.

Of course, the Girl’s blindness is exploited but not cruelly; the simple ravelling of a ball of wool becomes an uncomfortable predicament when the Girl takes hold of the wrong thread. When The Tramp learns that a blindness reversal procedure is available he vows to get the money for the Girl which leads us to another great comic moment via the wonderfully choreographed boxing match, which has been often imitated but never duplicated (a similar Laurel & Hardy skit notwithstanding).

City Lights was first conceived while sound was still in its infancy and silent movies were still the norm, but following the death of Chaplin’s mother and other distractions the production was postponed or compromised. One problem which seems quite remarkable when watching the film was the relationship between Chaplin and leading lady Virginia Cherrill. They reportedly didn’t get along and when Cherrill’s lateness delayed shooting one day Chaplin fired her.

Filming resumed with Chaplin’s co-star from The Gold Rush Georgia Hale, even filming the classic denouement with her but Hale proved inadequate so Cherrill was rehired at double her original salary. You’d never guess there were such tensions between the two as their chemistry on screen is genuine and rich with pathos. Chaplin naturally dominates the film but it is Cherill’s performance that provides the grace, dignity and emotional hook, without portraying The Girl as needy in lieu of her affliction.

Harry Myers – the second actor to play The Millionaire after original choice Henry Clive refused to jump into the water for the suicide attempt scene – is a fun foil and partner in crime for The Tramp, aided by Al Ernest Garcia as James, the snooty butler, essentially fulfilling the straight man role.

One area which is underappreciated is how it is ostensibly a series of vignettes held together by a relatively uncomplicated storyline, yet the transitions between each one is fluid and feels completely congruent, as opposed to just being there as a means to entertain and mark time. There are many of these scenes each one impeccably timed, meticulously constructed, efficiently executed and reportedly shot multiple times (sometimes into three digits) until Chaplin was fully satisfied.  

This film also marks the first time Chaplin wrote the musical score with Arthur Johnston, which included timely cues for onscreen antics along with the distinctive emotive and lyrical soundtrack Chaplin became known for later on in his career. Aside from the odd overdubbed sound effect, such as a whistle or bell ringing, the presentation is very much as an old school silent film, complete with intertitles.

It seems the overwhelming success of City Lights suggested Chaplin might have been the only silent star who could remain immune from the advent of sound, something Modern Times failed to reaffirm at the box office. Regardless of when this was made, there is no question of its credentials as charming and classic piece of whimsical comic cinema.