[To read "Best Picture Of 1930-31: City Lights (prod. Charles Chaplin), Part One," click here. To read Part Two, click here. To read Part Three, click here.]
The Perfect, Problematic Ending Of City Lights (Spoilers Ahead)
It's a truism when I tell you that it's easier to analyze a flawed work of art than a perfect one. In the former, you can see the man behind the curtain, what levers he pulls, what illusions he's trying to create; in the latter, the artist and his intentions are hidden, the machinery underneath so seamlessly integrated into the final product that you're left with the finished work of art and nothing else.
I remember reading an article in the Washington Post some years ago, the reporter reminiscing about his days as a graduate student and a course he took from William Faulkner. Trying to impress the master, the student asked, in regard to Faulkner's story "The Bear," whether the bear was a positive nature symbol, a negative nature symbol or both a positive and negative nature symbol.
Faulkner thought for a while, then said, "That's a story about a bear."
Even the artist himself doesn't quite know what the finished work means as the alchemy of the creative process turns the dross of his intentions into the gold of art.
And of all the movies that I have written about over the course of the last year, no scene has left me more moved and more bereft of words to describe it or analytical skills even to understand it, than the final scene of Charles Chaplin's City Lights.
Here is the scene in question. (My recommendation is that if you haven't seen the entire movie, see it here first. Better yet, rent it from Netflix ...)
It's such a simple scene, just a man and a woman reunited after a long while, a flower exchanged, and then a look of recognition, a smile and fade to black. The appeal of the movie rests on these final moments; indeed, it was this scene Chaplin had in mind when he first began to work on City Lights. I've watched this scene so many times, sometimes in the context of the movie as a whole, oftentimes not, just watching it again to feel the entire movie reduced to a couple of minutes. It's one of the most perfect moments in movie history.
But what exactly does it mean? What does the action imply about what's going to happen to these two people even five minutes later? Nobody quite knows, least of all me.
Roger Ebert sees it as a scene of pure joy, with no ambiguity. "She sees," he has written, "and yet still smiles at him, and accepts him. The Tramp guessed correctly: She has a good heart, and is able to accept him as himself."
James Berardinelli sees it the same way. "The most touching thing about his relationship with the Flower Girl is that, because she is blind, she cannot see his shabby appearance and does not judge him the way others do. ... And, when her sightlessness has been lifted, her attitude does not change. Her new eyes see past the hobo's clothing."
Yet Daniel Eagan in his essay on the movie for America's Film Legacy: The Authoritative Guide To The Landmark Movies In The National Film Registry calls the final scene "a delicate, open-ended encounter that forces the two main characters to erase their dreams, step out of their fantasies, and face up to an unforgiving reality."
Leslie Halliwell, in awarding one of the few four-star ratings in his wonderfully idiosyncratic film guide, noted "Nothing [Chaplin] did before, or after, compared to the closing moments here, a brilliant moment of recognition and loss ..."
And after noting that the girl accepts the Tramp for who he is, Tim Dirks, in his essay for The Greatest Films website, writes "A question arises: How can she possibly love him, now that she can see him? Their social roles are now reversed in this face-to-face encounter—his identity has changed from a benevolent millionaire to a vagabond, impoverished Tramp. She has turned from a poor, Blind Girl into a prosperous beautiful woman."
Me, I've seen it both ways. The eternal pessimist in me thinks, Yes, she's grateful, loyal, no doubt ready to return the favor of financial aid, but you can also see the dream of marrying a millionaire dying in her eyes and it's a painful death. Which the Tramp knew would happen, and he paid to restore the girl's sight knowing that to do so would end his pretense of wealth and with it, any possibility of romance. Yet he restored her sight anyway.
And yet I watched the scene again last night—I don't know how many times I'd seen it already—and thought, "Well, maybe Ebert is right." But if he is, it's not because of the expression on Virginia Cherrill's face, it's the one on Chaplin's, the shy, happy smile as the camera fades to black. If anything can be interpreted in that scene as the flower girl accepting the Tramp for who he is, it's the Tramp's look of joy—presumably because of what he thinks he sees in her eyes. But I don't know since what I see in her eyes is something different. I'm sure the next time I see City Lights, I'll have yet another opinion.
Maybe your reading of the ending depends on who you think is the "light" of the movie's title. Is it the girl, kind, generous, innocent? Or is it the self-sacrificing Tramp? Me, I'm inclined to judge deeds not motives and it's the Tramp's deeds that make the difference in people's lives. He is the city's light.
But does that explain the ending?
As he often did, James Agee, the legendary critic and screenwriter, probably wrote best about the moment: "The finest pantomime, the deepest emotion, the richest and most poignant poetry were in Chaplin's work. He could probably pantomime Bryce's The American Commonwealth without ever blurring a syllable and make it paralyzingly funny into the bargain. At the end of City Lights the blind girl who has regained her sight, thanks to the Tramp, sees him for the first time. She has imagined and anticipated him as princely, to say the least; and it has never seriously occurred to him that he is inadequate. She recognizes who he must be by his shy, confident, shining joy as he comes silently toward her. And he recognizes himself, for the first time, through the terrible changes in her face. The camera just exchanges a few quiet close-ups of the emotions which shift and intensify in each face. It is enough to shrivel the heart to see, and it is the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies."
I think above all, the end of City Lights works like the best music, evoking pure emotion that springs from a place within us beyond the centers of reason. And trying to affix words to a pure emotion is like trying pin a medal on a balloon; the act of doing so destroys the very thing you're trying to celebrate.
Chaplin himself, who was always loathe to discuss his methods and the meaning of his films, concluded only, "It's a beautiful scene, beautiful, and because it isn’t over-acted."
If you've seen City Lights, you no doubt have an opinion, and I would love to know what you think. And if you haven't seen it, maybe it's time to, if only to teach the Monkey a thing or two about the movies.