Today is the anniversary of the release of Charlie Chaplin’s great masterpiece City Lights (1931).
Despite being released well into the sound era, City Lights may be thought of as Chaplin’s last movie of the silent period, as work on it began in 1927. Before he had finished it (granted he was taking an exceptionally long time) the entire industry had switched over to talkies. So now his project was burdened with being more than just a silent movie. It sort of had to be THE silent movie, to put a period to the entire silent era, and perhaps the entire history of pantomime as a popular art form. Thus the movie aspires to be not just a silent comedy, but also something more like a clown piece for the stage, a pantomime in the modern French sense. (By the way, Paris is known as the “City of Light,” a nickname that goes back to its place as the first European city to be illuminated at night with gaslight. The name evokes a bygone, glamorous era.) Thus redoing the film as a talking picture was unthinkable; Chaplin had devised it pretty deliberately as a mimoplay. It depends on a delicate balance of gesture-based scenes. Introducing speech to the equation would make Chaplin’s stereotyped situation seem like weaker broth than it really is.
The plot is about the Tramp falling in love with a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) who mistakenly thinks he’s a millionaire. Meanwhile, the Tramp is also hanging around with an actual millionaire (Harry Myers), who has a distressing fair-weather habit of recognizing and embracing Charlie only when he’s drunk—and not recalling a thing the morning afterwards. Eventually the Tramp procures funds for the girl’s eye operation (eye operation!) from the drunken millionaire, only to be arrested for theft when the latter sobers up. When the Tramp gets out of the pokey, he finds the flower girl to be in possession of two good, working eyes. Which means, sadly that she can see him. And that he isn’t a millionaire. The complex beat on which the film closes—of her realization and his trepidation when the truth is revealed—has been called by many critics one of the greatest and most moving moments in all cinema.
The new element (and this is why City Lights is the next chronological high-water mark for Chaplin after The Gold Rush) is that he also composed an original musical score for the film (filled though it may be with borrowings and quotations) and a funny soundtrack of effects and comical gibberish substituting for speech. In some ways it’s a more complex undertaking than just writing a screenplay and recording actors talking.
But complex or simple it’s still a pantomime. Chaplin intended for it to be such, and it is. You cannot, as George Jean Nathan tried to do in a 1934 essay, castigate the story for its lack of originality. Chaplin never intended for it to have any. There are only a limited number of plots in this world as it is. When you begin to boil the cast of characters down to “Tramp” and “Blind Flower Girl” things get awfully simplified indeed. That is the convention.
Also there’s a feeling of closure as the film’s theme applies to Chaplin the man as well. City Lights contains a sense of summation of his career, a recap of all that the public loves about him: there are the comical drunk scenes, the run-ins with policemen and other authorities, a comedy boxing match, and the pathos of a hopeless love-from-afar.
Chaplin had kicked off the era of classic comedy features with The Kid; it was only fitting that he should end it with City Lights.
For more on silent and slapstick comedy film history including classics like Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights” see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media.