Archive for City Lights

On Chaplin’s “City Lights”

Posted in Charlie Chaplin, Clown, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , on March 7, 2014 by travsd


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.

City Lights Night Out

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 Kidit was only fitting that he should end it with City Lights.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy film history see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc. For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


On the Hearty Georgia Hale, Chaplin’s “Gold Rush” Co-Star

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 24, 2013 by travsd


The lovely Georgia Hale (1905-1985) was born on this day. Today she is almost exclusively known for her role as “Georgia” (very imaginative!) in Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925).

Hale, who had already appeared in Josef Von Sternberg’s The Salvation Hunters, was the friend of Lita Grey. Grey had originally been cast as the female lead in The Gold Rush —  until Charlie got her in a family way and had to marry her. Hale was hired to replace her. She was terrific in the The Gold Rush and starred in nearly a dozen other films during the silent era, most notably as Myrtle in the original screen verison of The Great Gatsby (1926).  She only made one sound picture, a Rin Tin Tin vehicle called The Lightning Warrior (1931). She was also briefly hired as a replacement for Virgina Cherrill when the latter was giving Chaplin trouble in City Lights, although Chaplin soon reneged and invited Cherrill back. Here’s a cool rarity: Hale’s screen test for that role from 1929. (She appears a few minutes in):

To learn more about silent and slapstick film, and performers like Georgia Hale, please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc

Hank Mann: A Dependable Comedy Veteran

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 28, 2013 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Hank Mann (David Lieberman, 1888-1971), known best from his role as Charlie Chaplin’s boxing opponent in City Lights in 1931. Chaplin had known and worked with him 17 years earlier at Keystone. He’d started out as part of an acrobatic act on the Sullivan-Considine circuit, then went to work for Mack Sennett at Keystone in 1913.

Characterized by a potato like face, a push-broom of a mustache, a beak-like nose, eyes like two buttons, and Dutch-boy bangs; he looked sort of like the Thompson Twins from Hergé’s Tin-Tin books. Under the goofy façade was a muscular, athletic frame capable of punishing stunts, still in fine shape nearly 20 years later when he played the prizefighter in City Lights. Mann was also revered for his ability to slip in subtle scene stealing gags as buttons to the general mayhem.

In addition to his three separate stints working for Sennett, he also worked for Fox, L-KO, Universal and Joe Rock. From 1919 to 1920, Mann even had his own starring series of shorts.  In the talkie years he would support Chaplin (not just City Lights but also Modern Times and The Great Dictator), but also The Three Stooges, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Our Gang and Jerry Lewis. These were all bit parts and walk-ons, but he was hired for a reason. Not only was he a professional, able to bring something special to his little one minute turns, but the producers knew that old time, die-hard comedy fans would recognize him, giving the movie a little zip when he appeared.

For more on Hank Mann and silent and slapstick comedy please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc

Virginia Cherrill, “City Lights”

Posted in Charlie Chaplin, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Women with tags , , , on April 12, 2013 by travsd

City Lights (1931)

Today is the birthday of Virginia Cherrill (1908-1996), one in a long line of young women Charlie Chaplin plucked from obscurity in order to co-star with him in films. From rural Illinois, she won a Chicago beauty pageant in 1925 and made her way west to California, where she was an extra in The Air Circus (1928) and made her way into the inner circle of Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst. Chaplin met her and cast her as the blind flower girl in City Lights (which began shooting in 1928 and was released in 1931).

The relationship was a contentious one. Chaplin felt she was awful (not to mention “high maintenance”, which she was) and sought to replace her several times, although her final performance gained critical raves. She acted in several more films over the next few years, then retired briefly to marry Cary Grant. That marriage lasted only a few months. Then she moved to London, where she acted in two more films and then retired again to marry the 9th Earl of Jersey in 1937. When he passed away in 1946, she married Florian Martini, a Polish flying ace whom she’d met during the war. The two settled in Santa Barbara, California in 1950.

And now here’s City Lights:

To learn more about silent comedy please see Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc


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