Growing up the majority of my silent film comedies came in the form of Buster Keaton. I saw a few Charlie Chaplin films, but Buster Keaton was my main man. This is not to say that I prefer one to the other, not forgetting Harold Lloyd, rather that I had more experience with Buster Keaton’s films than with Charlie Chaplin’s. Starting off my month of silent films I decided to take a suggestion from Fritzi of Movies Silently and watch CITY LIGHTS.
The Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) is trying to take a nap in the solid stone arms of a statue. Unfortunately for him this statue is part of a dedication ceremony and is unveiled, complete with sleeping tramp, before an entire crowd of people, dignitaries, and policemen. Naturally no one is particularly pleased to see him there and the Tramp takes his leave as quickly as possible but not before creating quite a stir and putting himself on the police’s radar. Walking down the street the Tramp meets some of the lovely young fellows of the newsboy ilk and, in an attempt to avoid their taunts, crosses the street and nearly runs into a waiting policeman. Luckily for him several fancy cars have just pulled up and the Tramp slips into the backseat through one door and out onto the sidewalk through the other.
Exiting onto the sidewalk the Tramp hears a young woman peddling flowers to the passing gentry. The rich and fashionable walk on by without a second glance but the Tramp turns to see the lovely young woman (Virginia Cherrill). She offers him a flower and while he is turning her down, drops it on the sidewalk. As she reaches down to find it he realizes that she is blind and hurries to help her. He buys a flower and at that moment a man crosses in front of him and climbs into the town car the Tramp just exited from. The girl looks up believing that the Tramp is actually a rich gentleman who has just driven away without his change.
The Tramp is in love but knows that he can’t do anything to help the lovely flower girl as he has no money to his name, let alone a home or a job. But she sees him as something wonderful and he would do anything to keep that vision alive. Walking by the canals late that night he comes across a drunken man trying to kill himself. The Tramp manages to stop the man and convince him that life is worth living. The drunken man is actually a drunken millionaire (Harry Myers) and he proclaims that the Tramp is his new best friend. He takes him back to his mansion and gives him plenty of drinks and food. A small problem arises in the morning when it becomes clear that when sober the millionaire has no clue who the Tramp is, and he certainly is NOT his dearest friend. This is doubly bad for the Tramp because not only does his lose his rich pal but he also loses the possibility of helping his dearest love regain her sight. Clearly he will have to take matters into his own hands.
CITY LIGHTS is thought by many to be the finest film that Charlie Chaplin ever made. I can certainly see why this would be. Obviously this film was a labor of love, especially since it took Charlie Chaplin almost four years to bring it to theaters. Original filming began in late 1928 but the film was shelved as the talkies began to take over the film industry. The subsequent depression did nothing to help matters either, as CITY LIGHTS would become one of the most expensive films made by Chaplin at the time. It wouldn’t be until 1930 that Chaplin would begin filming again. CITY LIGHTS would also mark the first film that Charlie Chaplin composed a musical score for.
In spite of the growing popularity of sound, and the increasing pressure to turn CITY LIGHTS into a talkie, Charlie Chaplin held firm in his desire to release the film as a silent. Why would he do this? Why run the risk of financial loss by releasing a silent film to an audience that was becoming more and more enamored of sound? I think it was because he was trying to make a film that showed the world the beauty, emotional impact, and intelligence that could be found in silent films. Charlie Chaplin was known as a perfectionist, holding control over every element of filming, but there is something about CITY LIGHTS that makes it feel as if more was at stake for Chaplin than with some of his other films.
There are some theories that CITY LIGHTS is semi-autobiographical with the flower girl representing Chaplin’s mother and the millionaire his father. While this could be true, I tend to think that the millionaire represents the Hollywood industry attacking the art of silent film and the flower girl is the movie-going public. The millionaire loves the Tramp only when drunk and shows his affection with gifts, money, and parties. But in the light of day all gifts are rescinded and all bonds are severed. While the powers of Hollywood might have kinds words to say about Chaplin and his films at parties or in private, when it comes time to stand up in the board room and make a case for silent film all allies fade away. The flower girl is innocent and kind, and believes the Tramp to be someone great and powerful even though she has never seen him. The Tramp puts so much effort and love into trying to help her regain her sight. It almost seems as if Chaplin was begging the people who had spent so much time and money coming to see his films, the people who made him into and believed him to be a great star, to take one more look at silent films, to show them that these films which they had once loved could be something great and wonderful even in a world of sound. With this idea in mind the final scene becomes so much more powerful.
CITY LIGHTS could not stop the onslaught of sound, nor could it revive the world of silent films. But what it could do, and what it did, was create a film that showed everything that was best about the art form. And while Charlie Chaplin may not have saved silent films per se, I think he did save them in a way he never expected. CITY LIGHTS is a film that helps people fall in love, or at least in like, with silent films. It has romance without being sappy, humor without being over the top, and emotion without being melodramatic. For every person who watches this film and wants to see more, in them Chaplin has saved silent film because no art form can truly die when there are people who are watching it, talking about it, thinking about it, and loving it.