Note: This is the hundred-and-sixty-first in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my favorite 1931 film, CITY LIGHTS, directed by Charlie Chaplin.
CITY LIGHTS isn’t my favorite Charlie Chaplin movie. That distinction goes to THE GOLD RUSH (1925), and in fact, THE KID (1921) is in second place. But this is something we could call hair-splitting, as all three are in the running for best comedies…no, best movies of all time. CITY LIGHTS, Chaplin’s vital reinforcement of the silent cinema art form four years after its end was sung out of Al Jolson’s blackface-d mouth, is often cited as the actor-writer-director-composer’s greatest contribution to film. It’s described as his silent swan song, the final appearance of the mute Tramp character, and an apotheosis of the art form he helped develop, or nearly defined. Great filmmakers throughout time, such as Orson Welles, Martin Scorsese, and Chaplin himself, have named it the icon’s (a word tossed around a little too liberally, but in this case it’s true) greatest work. And I think all of those sentiments are exemplified by the conclusion of CITY LIGHTS, yes, one of the greatest movies ever made, a sublime moment of emotional simplicity that wells out of all of the adventures that preceded it.
The context for how large CITY LIGHTS looms is important because approaching it with a clear head is nearly impossible. Its reputation, like CITIZEN KANE’s (1941), defines modern audiences’ reactions. It’s all the more remarkable then that the movie that took years to make at a time when top-shelf movies took five or six months at most is still so incredible. I won’t bother myself with comparing CITY LIGHTS to THE GOLD RUSH or THE KID and how my personal taste factors into my distinction of favorites, and instead examine the beauty of Chaplin’s most celebrated film backwards, through the lens of the final meeting between the Tramp and the “blind” girl, with sight now restored to her.
In that final moment, all of the sacrifices of Chaplin’s indelible character are felt most poignantly. And looking back at the beginning of CITY LIGHTS, from the very first moment the blind flower-seller mistakes the Tramp for a rich gentleman, thanks to the coincidentally timely slam of a car door, their every encounter is defined by pleasure and (mostly comic) pain for the Little Fellow. Right away, the flame of his instant crush is doused by cold water thrown by the girl, who is none the wiser to the Tramp’s seat next to her. For the symmetry in the final scene, I’ll eventually look at her initial cruel comments about the Little Man.
Before the two are reunited, the Tramp is fresh out of jail for the misunderstood thievery of money, given to him by his drunk millionaire friend and patron who turns distant and cold in sobriety. After his release, he has never looked worse in Chaplin’s films, a truly raggedy figure who has had the emotional stuffing beaten out of him. He can’t even muster up the energy and courage to twirl a cane or put on his gentlemanly airs. But he coincidentally passes by the new flower store owned by the object of his devotion and desire, who has had her sight restored thanks to a trip to a Viennese doctor who is providing free surgeries for the blind, funded by the Tramp’s money. It’s a Romantic plot point, only made believable because of the terms on which Chaplin built the rest of CITY LIGHTS.
In these final moments, the Tramp spots a discarded rose in the street, a piece of beautiful detritus that echoes the street cleaning job he picked up earlier in the film to support the girl. In any event, he nearly walks by the store without a second look after experiencing the bullying of street corner newsboys. The Tramp, throughout CITY LIGHTS, put up with a lot of abuse, but he always took it in stride, even in an earlier case of the corner kids’ bullying. But his nearly vicious reaction to the newsies’ later spitballs recalls, and reverses, the balletic and considerate experience of the deservedly famous and celebrated boxing sequence. Ironically, the scene of orchestrated violence is refined, airy, and funny, and the later scene of admittedly mean jests results in the Tramp’s “last straw” reaction. But again, after this attack, it looks like he may end up never seeing the girl again; it wouldn’t be out of character for Chaplin to go with a yearning ending, as he did for THE CIRCUS (1928).
But turn to look within the window he does, a brief moment of blankness transforming into a stunned, loving look. Here we return to the girl’s kind of out-of-character remarks, as if the removal of her condition has also saddled her with the cynicism beat into the lives of city folk. “Looks like I’ve made a conquest,” the girl jokes, who at this point still doesn’t know the identity of her patron, although as we see, she hopes that the next well-to-do man that walks into her shop will be him. The restoration of her sight hasn’t totally removed her empathy or kindness, though, as she exits the shop to bring the Tramp a flower and a coin. He almost turns to run, to avoid dispelling the illusion he crafted for the girl, a counterintuitive move after the multiple times he ran to reach his love. But the Little Fellow stays, he can’t resist; and as the girl pushes the flower and money into his hands, she recognizes him.
She remembers the feel of his palms from the scene just before he enters jail, when he faced the prospect with a bravery and charm, as illustrated by the little kick of his last cigarette before the doors of the prison, all before he slinks back out into the big city with his shoulders hunched. The blind girl, who can now literally see the face of her benefactor, realizes the enormity of his actions, if this is the man who made all of this possible. “You can see now?” the Tramp asks, confirming his identity. And the final looks that pass between them through close ups, which Chaplin rarely used, are tremendous things, ballooned past the way even real-life lovers look at each other. Tears flow. And every aspect of this final scene is fueled by the Tramp’s earlier experiences, from his trek down this same stretch of street, the newsboys’ antics, the street cleaning, the boxing match, and finally to the true “first” meeting between Tramp and girl.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say CITY LIGHTS is greater than the sum of its parts, because each of its parts are so intricately crafted that, if you weren’t aware of the movie’s extensive production difficulties and its director’s almost manic devotion to perfection, you wouldn’t be faulted for believing was pulled off effortlessly. My appreciation for the various scenes of CITY LIGHTS is not only intellectual either, as Chaplin constantly reinforces the notion that he was the King of Pathos, weaving the strings of sentiment into a beautiful, exaggerated reflection instead of a cheap picture (if I may mix my metaphors). Chaplin made funnier films than CITY LIGHTS, and he made me cry harder and more often in others, but there is no doubt that the movie is an exceptional experience. In its conclusion, CITY LIGHTS retroactively enriches the already profound effects of its preceding scenes and brings the Romantic instincts of Charlie Chaplin into tremendously clear view.