Let’s Talk About… ‘City Lights’ (1931)

Film #46 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies

Every week FilmExodus does a review/analysis of a different cinematic masterpiece from AFI’s 100 Movies 2007 updated list. For a complete overview and how you can participate, click here.

Background

Charlie Chaplin grew up poor. He watched his mother go mad. He worked as a performer onstage for years before going to make films in Hollywood.

Given this background, it’s no wonder that his most famous character ended up being a lovable hobo called “the tramp” or “the little tramp,” who just wanted to lead a happy life. Unlike contemporaries Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, his character had a much harder time fitting into society and often wound up walking off into the sunset alone or being rejected by a part of society. He would often end up in jail or mooching off others. However, he would never feel sorry for himself or give up.  He would always find a way to pull through.

The late 1920’s also brought a new innovation: sound. Almost every filmmaker (including those from silent comedies) was making the transition and making films with dialogue. Unimpressed by this new innovation, Chaplin decided to stick to his old style. Like many of the silent comedians, Chaplin came from a history of pantomime, a style of theater based more around physicality than talking. Dreading the coming of sound, Chaplin decided to make a silent film to prove the wonders of silent film.

Premise

Down on his luck, the Tramp meets a blind Flower girl (Virginia Cherrill). Realizing her predicament, he sets out on a mission to get money to restore her sight. This leads the tramp to a series of jobs that could possibly give him the money to for the operation.

Along the way, he meets and befriends a suicidal drunk Rich Man (Harry Myers) who forgets who the tramp is when sober, gets into a boxing match where he runs away from his much stronger opponent the whole time, and works cleaning up streets.

Observations

Dubbed a “Comedy Romance in pantomime” in the opening credits, Chaplin creates a modern fairytale similar to Beauty and the Beast. Unlike many of the comic filmmakers of the time period, Chaplin’s films are more about catharsis than just creating gags. Instead of ending with a big laugh, Chaplin will end with an observation about life or the times we live in. While his films did contain big comic set pieces, they were often not as big or as absurd as Harold Lloyd’s or Buster Keaton’s.

What separates City Lights from other stories like this is the way the film employs the Tramp character. City Lights has a melodramatic plot device without being a melodrama. Lloyd C. Douglas had used a similar kind of plot (a man restoring a woman’s sight) to great financial success in the melodramatic book Magnificent Obsession. In that story, a selfish playboy becomes a more kind and caring person after deciding to restore the sight of widow that he blinded due to his reckless behavior. Hollywood adapted it twice, with the most famous version being the Douglas Sirk film starring Rock Hudson. Unlike that book and those films, this film does not have the character change in order to restore her vision. Rather, it has the character suffer in order to gain the money to restore her vision. The Tramp does not change that much throughout this film, although he does everything he can to help the blind flower girl. It tells a story about a man who does not fit into society trying to help somebody in their own unfortunate situation.

In some ways, I prefer Modern Times (1936) to City Lights. Modern Times has a more cohesive story in which the Tramp tries to make it in the real world with his love interest. In this film, the film tends to bounce from episode to episode more than having a full comedy plot. Some of the bits work better than others. The boxing sequence remains a classic of physical comedy. While the Tramp has a clear and simple objective, he also kind of wonders from scene to scene, creating mischief wherever he goes.

The film also ends in a more open-ended way than Chaplin’s other films with a love interest do: with the blind girl realizing that he’s homeless. Like all romances, the question is “will the leads end up together?” Other Chaplin films that have a love interest usually end with him getting his love interest and walking off into the sunset, like in Modern Times or The Gold Rush (1925). The other big difference between Chaplin and the other comedians comes in the form of the obstacles presented to him. In many Buster Keaton films, his inexperience and basic physics stood in the way of him getting what he wanted. In Harold Lloyd films, he tended to not have enough money or status to marry his sweetheart. As in all of Chaplin’s romance films, the problem that stands in his way is not money or a bully, but how society perceives somebody as destitute as him. When asked about the difference between his and Chaplin’s characters, Harold Lloyd said that Chaplin’s character had a harder time getting the girl because of his status in society. Lloyd also pointed out that the female character usually had to also be pretty messed up in order to end up with Chaplin. In Modern Times, he and his love interest (Paulette Goddard) are both fugitives. In The Gold Rush, he gets rich. Both these endings tie the film up nicely. This scene addresses that question and ends the film, but the conclusion seems more bittersweet than happy. It does not make the audience as hopeful for the future as Chaplin’s other films.

The film also works as a silent film. We accept the impossible (such as a character magically being able to remember somebody only when drunk and forget them when sober) because the style never presents itself realistically. As this film uses pantomime, all of the actors have a bigger performing style to explain the scene through gesture and action rather than words. By announcing itself as a “Comedy Romance in Pantomime,” we understand that this is the type of movie being made.

Final Thoughts

While not my favorite Chaplin film, City Lights still remains a classic. It tells a great love story that questions class and people, as well as remaining touching and funny. It also has many great jokes that make the film both bittersweet and funny. It also has one of Chaplin’s sweetest viewpoints on humanity and love.

Facts and Trivia

  • Chaplin was infamous for working slowly and City Lights was no exception. Chaplin kept his crew on standby for 22 months, even though he ended up filming 179 days.
  • When two high society characters speak at the beginning, they speak in gibberish Chaplin made this joke to satirize sound film. In a similar move, he would later only have machines speak real dialogue in Modern Times.