City Lights by matthew c. hoffman

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City Lights is more than a movie; it’s a special place that reminds us of our humanity and the poetry of cinema. It’s a place many today have never seen, and that’s a shame because eighty years after its premiere the brilliance of City Lights has not dimmed. It’s the film that summarizes all the elements of performance that define Chaplin and show off his great range: the graceful pantomime, the acrobatics, and the pathos punctuated by the gentle touch of slapstick.

It is a simple story of lost souls who find each other in an instable world: the gentleman tramp who aids a blind flower girl. Its simplicity in structure masks the fact that this was Chaplin’s most difficult film, taking over two years to complete. The end result is a film that fits together as easily as a jigsaw puzzle; the pieces could not have fit any other way. Chaplin’s original idea was to tell a story of a blind clown. He kept this theme of blindness through the various story incarnations, but he always had a sense of the story’s final destination. Having a blind girl as the heroine recalls The Strong Man from 1926. This is considered Harry Langdon’s best film, which was directed by Frank Capra. Langdon has often been considered the fourth genius of silent comedy.

Chaplin cast Chicago socialite and recent divorcee Virginia Cherrill in the role of the flower girl. According to one version, he had met her ringside at a prizefight. Cherrill had no previous acting experience, and it is possible this deficiency actually helped her to be convincing in the role and to appear blind without seeming to over-act. Chaplin’s advice to her was simply to look at him but “to look inwardly and not to see me.” Their working relationship, however, was strained from the beginning. Perhaps it was her boredom derived from production delays and inactivity, but she never fueled his enthusiasm. Things deteriorated when Virginia asked to leave the set for a hair appointment. Chaplin fired her immediately.

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She was not the only one to have been fired from this production. Australian artist Henry Clive had originally been cast as the suicidal millionaire, but when he refused to jump into the pool on the third day of filming he was let go and replaced by Harry Myers, who is terrific in the role. Charlie replaced Virginia with his Gold Rush co-star, Georgia Hale. (There is a fascinating screen test of Hale which can be found on the dvd.) But the reality for Chaplin was that too much of City Lights had already been completed with Virginia. He was forced to bring her back after he acquiesced to her new contract demands.

Chaplin had said that he worked himself up into what he called a neurotic state of wanting perfection. Most likely the stress and anxiety of making a silent movie in the sound era brought about this state. Charlie’s first meeting with the flower girl was shot over 300 times, marking what would become a Guinness World Record for retakes. In Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema, silent film historian Jeffrey Vance writes, “He would not hesitate to retake a scene if he felt she was holding a flower improperly, if the timing of her movement was off, if she was not completely concentrating on the scene, or even if she spoke the line of dialogue, ‘flower, sir?’—which no one would hear in the finished film—incorrectly.”

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A silent movie in 1931 was an anachronism, but Chaplin felt there was no way he should make his most famous character speak. Before sound shattered the silence around him, the Little Tramp had become a universal figure recognized in every culture. Speaking would’ve robbed him of his connection to a large section of the global audience. The Tramp never did speak dialogue, and when forced to finally utter something in Modern Times, Chaplin found a clever way around it.  

When the sound revolution came, many of the early talkies were stagey and visually-dull affairs. Films had lost their cinematic technique. But City Lights—a deliberate, conscious throwback to the world of silent cinema—could speak to us with the power of the image. The fabled city of the Little Tramp and the flower girl was a world where emotion could be conveyed through the power of pantomime. “Everything I do is a dance,” Chaplin had said of his process. “I think in terms of dance. I think more so in City Lights. The blind girl—beautiful dance there. I call it a dance. Just purely pantomime.” Charlie Chaplin was cinema’s greatest mime and a wizard of storytelling who knew how to reach every culture in the world.

Chaplin had, in his own unique way, turned slapstick itself into a dance. It is a style of filmmaking removed from the broad knockabout most people associate with silent comedies. There are no Keystone Kops in Legends of Laughter. No pie fights. Nothing of that sort. Those early, primitive images in the comedy timeline are best left for the archeologists of cinema. My goal has been to show audiences only the high points of the silent film tradition.

City Lights does have a musical score composed by Chaplin himself as well as an interesting use of synchronized sound effects, most notably the use of kazoos to speak for the politicians in the opening scene. It’s been suggested that this was Chaplin’s dig at movie dialogue. He shows us the irrelevance of words. Fittingly, they are coming out of the mouths of politicians. Modern audiences are trained to accept sound and the spoken word. They need it as badly as they do color, but these elements are no guarantees of a better film. Sound and color enhance reality, but the silent clowns existed in a world of exaggeration.

Few films of its time had the freedom of movement and pace of City Lights. Faster and more exciting than anything around it, the film moves with an ease and grace in which every scene is loaded with ingenious gags. Every scene is inspired– none more so than the final moments.  

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The final sequence is one of the great emotional scenes of cinema. I stress emotional rather than cinematic. It’s a very simple camera set-up and it’s easy to spot the continuity errors—a viewer will notice how the flower Chaplin is holding seems to move as we cut back and forth between him and the girl. But all that is irrelevant because it is a moment of great emotional power—the power of performance—and that to Chaplin had always been more important than any technical incongruities.

In later years Chaplin said, “I had one close-up once, in City Lights, just the last scene. One could have gone overboard… I was looking more at her and interested in her, and I detached myself in a way that gives a beautiful sensation. I’m not acting… almost apologetic, standing outside myself and looking, studying her reactions and being slightly embarrassed about it. And it came off. It’s a beautiful scene, beautiful, and because it isn’t over-acted.”

We don’t even need the inter-titles to understand it because it’s all there visually. Critic James Agee, the author of the essay “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” said of the film’s ending, “It is enough to shrivel the heart to see, and it is the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies.”

A viewer recently commented to me that she thought the music in this final scene was too sad, too sombre for a “happy” ending. Though it’s the ending we had hoped for, can the Tramp ever really find happiness and love– or will he forever be on that road alone? Chaplin was too smart a filmmaker to use music cues that would hit audiences over the head. There is a reason this moment is so iconic the way it is, and the music– in keeping with the tone of the earlier themes– makes it so.

This past Saturday Chaplin would’ve been 122 years old. Perhaps I should say he is 122 because he is still with us now—still living on the screen like the immortal he is. He is still making news, we are still learning about him, and he is still inspiring us with the magic silence of City Lights.

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One Response to “City Lights by matthew c. hoffman”

  1. This is my all time favorite movie! I am sad I missed it on Thursday but watched it with my family on Saturday to make up for it and celebrate Chaplin’s birthday.. I love the behind the film details you give and I am happy you started this blog. See you on Thursday, I will definitely try not to miss anymore and look forward to your insightful blog posts!

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