City Lights

by Peter Bogdanovich
July 6, 2011 10:50 AM
11 Comments
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Charlie Chaplin’s fifth feature-length film (after scores of shorts), CITY LIGHTS (available on DVD) was released early in 1931, the third full year of all-talking pictures and though it had numerous sound effects, a synchronized score, several sound jokes including some sardonically squeaky babble at the beginning, it is a silent movie, the last one made. Everybody had warned Chaplin that this was a terrible risk, since while he was shooting it over a period of nearly three years, the craze for sound films had exploded and entirely transformed the picture medium.

But Charlie’s gamble worked. Released as the novelty of talking films was wearing off, City Lights became a huge box office success, prompting Variety in 1932 to note that the picture’s grosses showed “that Chaplin was right about silence on the screen,” and, indeed, comparing the overall figures for sound films versus silents, concluded, “Silence in pictures, after all, was golden. It represented in money from some individual pictures much more for their makers than any talker to date...” The reason why, the trade paper argued, was “the gigantic possibilities of silents, with the world market to pick from, as against talkers with outlet narrowed.”

The article’s headline, “SOUND FILMS SHY BIG SILENT SUMS,” was prophetic, for although there was no turning back for the industry, movie attendance, after rising precipitously in the first year of full sound, soon dropped just as sharply, and never again reached the extraordinary peaks achieved during the silent era. (Chaplin’s last great success, and the last Tramp movie, Modern Times, released five years later, was also in most ways a silent picture, but there was some dialog heard and Chaplin did sing a sort of French-accented gibberish song toward the end.)

Below the surface of City Lights, there is an ache of nostalgia for the lost Eden of the silents that is still palpable today. Since talkies had so definitively taken over, Chaplin felt the need to subtitle his movie: “A Comedy Romance in Pantomime.” Like most of his stories, City Lights has the Dickensian-Victorian sentimentality Chaplin so often recalled. The blind flower girl central to the plot was a pretty dated concept even then, but within the fable-like atmosphere evoked, and the dreamlike quality natural to silent movies, it still works today. And this is tempered by the sharply satirical element of the millionaire who only when drunk recognizes and loves the Tramp; when sober, he wants nothing to do with the little fellow. Both Virginia Cherrill as the blind girl (the lovely actress would later become Cary Grant’s first wife) and Harry Myers as the millionaire are exceptionally believable.

I first saw City Lights in Manhattan when I was 24 and the picture was already 32 years old. On my movie-file card, I gave it the highest rating and raved: “One of the sublime achievements in the history of the movies. Perhaps Chaplin’s greatest work, certainly the one in which he alternates comedy and tragedy with the most incredible facility and success. Several times it is achingly funny, and at least twice truly heartbreaking. Of course, the ending—-the final close-up—-far surpasses its reputation, and sequences like the boxing match are unparalleled hilarity. A great and beautiful film, certainly among the dozen best ever made.”

This was long before I saw Buster Keaton’s Battling Butler (1926), in which Buster does a boxing match that is ten times as funny as Chaplin’s, and from which Charlie certainly borrowed. And today I would perhaps rate Chaplin’s first feature, The Kid (1921), at a higher level of perfection than City Lights. (In its day, The Kid became the highest grossing film since Griffith’s epoch-making The Birth of A Nation of 1915.) Nevertheless, the concluding scene of City Lights, in which the blind girl—-her sight now restored thanks to the Tramp’s sacrifices—-first sees her unknown benefactor, is still extraordinarily touching. Author-critic James Agee called the concluding shot of Charlie looking hopefully at her, with a flower to his mouth, “the highest moment in movies,” and this certainly (at least from an acting perspective) remains a valid judgment.

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11 Comments

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  • MAK | July 17, 2011 10:11 AMReply

    Just for 'neatness' -

    Peter, I think you've forgotten about THE GREAT DICTATOR/'40 when you mention MODERN TIMES as Chaplin's last great success. At least, if you meant financial success. Of course, dollar figures are difficult to get that far back, but an article in the NYTimes from 1942 lists DICTATOR as the third highest grossing film ever!, with GONE WITH THE WIND on top, of course. And numerous bios mention it as Chaplin's highest grossing film.

    Then again, if you meant to say that MODERN TIMES was his last artistic success . . . well, that's a whole 'nother article.

  • tom | July 15, 2011 7:56 AMReply

    The last shot in City I read perhaps as having to do with Chaplin's mother and her madness caused by economic hardship. I don't exactly see hope on Chaplin's face, but madness, expressing unresolvable contradictions in the social order, that he so deftly exposes; starting in the first scene.

  • Trademark Application | July 13, 2011 10:20 AMReply

    Well done, would have well done as well!

  • Roger | July 11, 2011 6:29 AMReply

    The thing that continually amazes me about "City Lights" is that dramatic intention is supported by a sound - a "sound" in a silent movie. The blind girl only realizes that the millionaire has arrived and left by the sound of the car door slamming.
    I realize that this is but a small notion to one of my favorite films, but I still remain amazed that the non-use of sound still provided sound.
    As for the ending: watch the last shot of Woody Allen's "Manhattan".

  • Christopher Stilley | July 10, 2011 2:04 AMReply

    For the longest time I never noticed the look of acceptance on the blind girl and the length of time she holds and caresses the hand of the little fellow...making that tinge of guilt in the tramps face at being found out for what he really is ,seem more of a mystery as to what his fortune or fate may be.
    Modern Times may induce me to laugh more,but I'll more than often put on City Lights for the overall wonderful spell it casts.

  • David Ehrenstein | July 7, 2011 9:21 AMReply

    He only seems simple. Chaplin is quite complex. Straub and Huillet cite him as films greatest editor as he understood like no one else where a physical action began and where it ended. Think about this the next time you watch a Chaplin film. As for "City Lights" it's my very favorite.

  • Jon Danzig | July 7, 2011 8:16 AMReply

    For sure, Charlie Chaplin was a comic genius, and in his time, the world's funniest man. Readers may be interested to watch my own 4-minute film that I wrote and directed about Charlie Chaplin. Called, "London Remembers Charlie Chaplin", it celebrates the little man's birth in London in 1889, because of course Charlie Chaplin was a Londoner. :) Now free to view at my YouTube channel at EyesEars.com:

    http://youtu.be/Kc7l4ku9ATU

  • Nigel S | July 7, 2011 7:12 AMReply

    "Falling down just isn't that funny." -The 100 Best Movies Ever Made ...Mostly Suck

  • Blake Lucas | July 7, 2011 6:27 AMReply

    As a self-directed actor (maybe any kind of actor), was there really ever anyone better than Chaplin? That final moment of CITY LIGHTS especially shows it. It's hard to think of any other moment in movies like it and it could only be in movies and not in any othe art form. As for his filmmaking, Chaplin is so often said to be relatively simple in the way he directs. Maybe, but if so, he's elegantly simple--and I personally can't find a reproach of his gracefully expressive mise en scene. I was feeling this especially after recently reviewing his much later LIMELIGHT, a very moving film and seems so even more to me now than it once did.

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