Released more than three years after the premiere of The Jazz Singer ushered in the sound era, Charles Chaplin's City Lights represented both the peak of the actor-director's brilliant career and a definite exclamation point marking the end of the silent era. A sublime romantic comedy, City Lights was arguably the greatest silent movie ever made, a huge worldwide hit and, along with Buster Keaton's The General, the movie I would recommend to anyone who has never seen a silent movie and is wondering what all the fuss was about. It's also my choice for the best picture of 1930-31.
(Because this essay is likely to run four thousand words or more, Katie-Bar-The-Door suggested I post it in pieces. Part Two will follow as soon as it's ready.)
Introduction: A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man
Born in London in 1889 to a pair of music hall performers, Chaplin's parents separated when he was an infant and, after his mother was institutionalized, Chaplin and his brother Sydney, like characters in a Dickens novel, were packed off first to a workhouse and then an orphanage. Amazingly, the experience did not leave Chaplin angry or bitter, but it did leave him with an abiding sympathy for the downtrodden, a sympathy that became a hallmark of his movies and was one of the keys to his astounding world-wide popularity between 1914 and 1931—that, and his sublime technique as a comedian, mime, actor, writer, director, producer, you name it.
Chaplin first performed on stage at the age of five, singing the popular tune "Jack Jones" to calm a hall full of drunken customers who had just booed his mother off stage. In 1910, he toured the U.S. with Fred Karno and his "army," a troupe of comedians that included not only Chaplin and his brother Sydney but also Stan Laurel and which (according to the infallible Wikipedia) invented the pie-in-the-face gag.
Legendary comedy director Mack Sennett, he of the Keystone Kops and many others, spotted Chaplin while he was performing with Karno and signed him to a movie contract. While working for Sennett, Chaplin developed the character of the Tramp, not only the single most recognizable figure of the silent film era but perhaps of all movie history. Rising from obscurity to stardom in less than a year, Chaplin departed for Essanay Studios in 1915 where he directed fourteen shorts, then for Mutual a year later where, working with complete artistic freedom, he made twelve of the greatest comedy shorts of the silent era, including One A.M., The Cure and The Immigrant.
Chaplin later called the Mutual period the happiest time of his life and his success there led to a million dollar contract with First National, where he had not only artistic control of filming and editing but also for the first time control over the pace at which his films would be released, freeing him to work on more expansive projects such as Shoulder Arms, The Pilgrim and, most importantly, The Kid, which I would call one of the four best movies Chaplin ever made (along with The Gold Rush, City Lights and Modern Times).
In 1919, Chaplin teamed with three of the biggest names in Hollywood, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith, to form United Artists, an independent film distribution company designed to put more money in the pockets of the people audiences were paying to see and giving those stars more artistic freedom in the process. Chaplin directed three movies for United Artists—A Woman of Paris, a drama starring longtime co-star Edna Purviance; The Gold Rush, one of the greatest comedies of the silent or any other era; and The Circus, in the words of Daniel Eagan a "delightful, unassuming film" which won an honorary award for Chaplin at the first Oscar ceremony—before turning to his next and perhaps greatest project, City Lights.
Forecasting With His Heart
When Chaplin began work on his next film project, the sound era was already a year old. Chaplin publicly stated that the new medium—for sound was not just a new technology but a new medium—was nothing more than a passing fancy and would be forgotten within three years. As Danny Peary put it in the book that inspired this blog in the first place, Alternate Oscars, Chaplin was "forecasting with his heart," never a good idea when money is on the line. In fact, as we now know, by the end of 1928 sound had but drowned out silent movies and by the time of City Lights' release in 1931, only a handful of directors—Chaplin, F.W. Murnau, Yasujiro Ozu—were still standing firm against the new medium.
Chaplin's choice to film another silent picture was not born so much of arrogance or nostalgia as of anxiety. He was convinced, rightly I think, that the Little Tramp couldn't survive the transition to sound. Once the Tramp began to speak, he would no longer be an Italian or a New Yorker or a Jew or whoever else was sitting in the theater, but would become what in fact he was, a somewhat fussy Londoner with a polished stage actor's accent. Not to mention that Chaplin was largely a pantomimist, his character existing on some impossible ethereal plane. To have the Tramp speak would be to ground him too firmly in the real world, a place he could never actually exist. So Chaplin set out to make his next feature a celluloid monument to the art of pantomime, the future be damned. If he was going out, he was going out on his own terms.
Chaplin decided the new movie would center on the theme of "blindness," initially toying with the idea of a blind clown before settling on the idea of a blind flower girl. The last scene, which I will discuss below after a "Spoiler" warning, came first in Chaplin's conception, one of the greatest final scenes in movie history. The problem though was not the ending but how to arrive there. The journey would take him over three years.
The first task was to cast the flower girl. As he often did, Chaplin cast his lead actress on impulse, choosing Virginia Cherrill on a whim after spotting her at a boxing match. Although Cherrill protested she was not an actress—aside from City Lights, she's best remembered now as Cary Grant's first wife—an amateur was exactly what Chaplin wanted, preferring to mold his co-star's performance without her having to unlearn someone else's methods.
Indeed, Chaplin preferred to mold everyone's performance in his movies, right down to the expressions of the extras in the background, acting out everyone's part and then shooting the scene over and over until everyone had copied him to his satisfaction.
Nor did Chaplin work from a script, preferring instead to draft the story on the set, using film the way another artist might use a scratchpad, to doodle ideas, taking dozens, sometimes hundreds of takes of a scene as he worked out the precise action. Whether measured by today's standards or those of the time, Chaplin's work methods were borderline insane, taking months and even years to complete a movie and spending what for the time was an enormous amount of money. These methods might have made sense when, for example, he was spending First National's money to produce The Kid and was all but certain of a blockbuster hit; when he was shooting City Lights, he was spending his own money—some $2 million—with no guarantee the finished product would ever find an audience. It was a tremendous risk.
The first meeting between Chaplin's Tramp and Cherrill's flower girl was the key to the movie. Crossing the street, the Tramp cuts through a parked limousine where the Girl sits on a park wall. She hears the slamming of the door as Chaplin gets out and mistaking him for the limousine's owner, asks him to buy a flower. If anything, the Tramp is annoyed but he can't resist her smile and gives her his last dime, not realizing until he knocks the flower from her hand that she is blind. When the real millionaire climbs into the limo, the girl mistakes the slamming door for her customer's exit and in order to preserve the illusion—for the girl's sake, rather than his own—the Tramp sneaks away to watch her from a distance. He's hopelessly smitten and the unfolding love story provides the narrative backbone upon which Chaplin would hang some of the best comedy bits of his career.
It's a sweet, simple scene and in the finished film, takes up just under three minutes of screen time. In reality, the sequence took 342 takes spread out over two years as Chaplin struggled to find the right device by which the blind flower girl would mistake the Tramp for a millionaire.
Using outtakes from Chaplin's own archive in their documentary Unknown Chaplin, Kevin Brownlow and David Gill show the director trying first one trick, then another—perhaps something with a watch chain, maybe a second flower, maybe more comedy, perhaps more feeling—Chaplin becoming visibly frustrated as he fails to work out a satisfactory solution. Chaplin kept the crew and cast hanging around the studio for months on end, Cherrill saying later she sat in her dressing room alone reading day after day, as he waited for inspiration to strike.
Cherrill had never made a movie before and made no effort to hide her boredom with the process—for example, leaving the set one day to have her hair done. Her indifference dismayed Chaplin and he eventually fired her, replacing her with Georgia Hale, his co-star from The Gold Rush. Eventually, however, Chaplin reluctantly rehired Cherrill. Not only had he shot too much footage with her to start over, he also realized that Hale (or any other actress he could have cast) was too professional and couldn't help but give the role of the flower girl a third dimension, making her a fully-fleshed human being when what the part called for was a fantasy figure.
That Chaplin concluded this reveals (to my mind, at least) that the audience is seeing the flower girl not as she is but as the Tramp sees her. Both characters are blinded in their own way, she by a physical impairment, he by sentimentality, and both proceed to act based on assumptions that have no basis in reality. This is what I meant in my essay on Chaplin the actor when I said that there's a difference between Chaplin the artist being sentimental and Chaplin the actor playing the Tramp as a sentimentalist. The Tramp may be blind to reality but Chaplin always saw the world as it was.
[To read "Best Picture Of 1930-31: City Lights (prod. Charles Chaplin), Part Two: A Comedy Romance In Pantomime," click here.]
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