The opening title card of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights reads “A comedy romance in pantomime”. This is a line that conceals more than it tells. There is comedy, yes, bursting from the seams at either end. There is indeed romance, established deep into the film between Chaplin’s Tramp and the blind flower girl. There is heaps of pantomime; in fact it’s what carries the film and, by extension, Chaplin’s entire career as a physical comedian. But there is also bold pathos (as there is in most of Chaplin’s pictures), meticulously timed choreography, melodrama, tragedy, misfortune, camaraderie, satire. More so than The Kid (1921), which was mostly sentimental, or The Gold Rush (1925), which was mostly comedic, or Modern Times (1936), which was mostly satirical, City Lights marries all the switches of everyday life into the circuitry of a movie without overloading it. All Chaplin had to do was flip the master and magic would happen.
The most magical moment in the film is at the end, when sight is restored and all boundaries of wealth, stature, and innocent misconceptions are broken down. In 1949, film critic James Agee called the scene “the greatest single piece of acting ever committed to celluloid.” Observe the faces of Virginia Cherrill, who plays the blind girl, and Chaplin. Up to this point the girl has lived in a state of reverie, believing that her would-be suitor is a rich man with a good, tender heart. Through the man’s good will, she goes for an operation that restores her sight. Some time passes. She upgrades from peddling flowers on the sidewalk to running her own store.
Of course, The Tramp is the suitor, mistaken for wealth. He is just released from prison when he stumbles across the girl’s flower store. A couple of mean paperboys bully him and yank at his dangling suspenders. The girl watches on and laughs. But then she pities him and offers him a flower and a coin. He refuses because he recognises her instantly. She insists. She takes his hands in hers and then… it happens. The touch is familiar. She feels his chest, shoulder, face. She knows this man. For a brief moment she becomes the blind girl again, allowing a torrent of radiant memories to flood her banks. Watch how Cherrill’s expression shifts effortlessly from generosity to confusion to realisation to joy. Watch her eyes well up with tears of relief. “You?”, she asks. “You can see now?”, The Tramp responds. “Yes”, she says, smiling. “I can see now”. No closing line as sublime will be uttered again until the end of Some Like It Hot (1959).
But this momentous scene would not have been so moving if the rest of the movie had operated on a cheaper level. If Chaplin had devised this closing scene first, before anything else, it would have been possible for him to mould the rest of City Lights around it, to support it, which would have made the foundations weak. Instead, the movie builds up to it in such a way as to empower it with a kind of immortality.
The girl’s realisation, for example, would not have been so touching if The Tramp had not been so unconditionally kind to her throughout the film. That’s his everyman quality. For a long while during the late 1910s and 1920s, The Tramp was the most popular image in the world. Chaplin became a global phenomenon and one of the world’s richest men. Yes, no doubt he rose to fame because he was funny and The Tramp was a lopsided, fumbling clown, but I think his popularity owed more to The Tramp’s pure heart. If he was only a clown, manufactured to incite hollow laughter, like The Three Stooges, he would have been well known but not so deeply cherished. What drew mass audiences to him was how seamlessly he hitched comedy with pathos, how he tore himself down through poverty and built himself back up through richness of spirit, so that when audiences laughed, they laughed not vacuously, but full of compassion.
City Lights is strewn with compassion. The Tramp gives more than he takes, which is a wonder because he always has so little to give. Consider the lengths he goes to to pay the blind girl’s twenty-two dollar rent. He takes up a job as a pooper-scooper, chasing after horses and, yes, elephants. He gets fired and enters into the movie’s funniest passage involving prizefighting, which he loses miserably if not hilariously. He saves the life of a suicidal alcoholic millionaire (Harry Myers) at the start of the film, is tossed around the ring of friendship as the millionaire dunks into and out of stupors, is given a thousand dollars one night, is then forgotten as the millionaire sobers up and can’t recognise him, is taken for a thief, is chased around the millionaire’s mansion by the butler and a cop, outsmarts them, outsmarts more cops, and eventually flees to the safety of the open streets.
When he makes it back to the girl’s apartment he prudently keeps a hundred in his jacket before handing her the rest, not only for her rent, but also for the eye surgery. This is generous enough. But Chaplin has more. The Tramp, through no insistence, gives her the last hundred as well. With The Tramp it’s always all or nothing. Consider that after he gives the girl all the money, he is caught and sent to prison. He knows no sacrificial boundary.
City Lights was released in 1931, four years after the advent of sound and The Jazz Singer. That Chaplin made a silent film when sound was driving the world giddy with delight was partly an act of defiance, partly necessity. Defiance because he thought sound would spell the destruction of the cinematic art form. He grew up in vaudeville, made a name for himself in pantomime, and was convinced silence was the best way to make people laugh. Sound, he thought, would be the catalyst for failure. As a hundred years of movies have proven, he was wrong.
Necessity because The Tramp cannot exist in a world of sound. Him speaking would be like Amon Goeth crusading for civil rights. The Tramp is a mime, whose success as a storyteller stems from his ability to convey thoughts and emotions through gestures and actions — the way he walks, the way he leans on his cane, the way he tips his hat and smiles politely, the way he uses locations and props as supplementary tools. Imagine if he spoke. What would he sound like? What would he say that his body hasn’t already said?
By 1940, with the release of The Great Dictator, Chaplin had given in and his popularity was in steady decline. The medium, and the character, that brought him immeasurable power also served as his downfall.
Now, he’s remembered by most moviegoers for being “that funny guy” and for loitering outside the Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles for photographs with tourists. No one remembers his brilliance. Who watches his films now, apart from those studying film? Who watches silent movies at all? A lot of people would say they do. Yeah, I watch silent films. I saw that one, um, what was it called… oh yes, The Artist.