City Lights, an indelible masterwork of cinema and, it seems fairly safe to say (nearly eighty-five years after its debut), Western civilization, represents both a beginning, in that it has been endlessly imitated, and an end, in that it has never been superseded. Charles Chaplin invented a new art in 1921 with his first feature film, The Kid. With City Lights, ten years later, he perfected it. Chaplin’s new art was a form of storytelling combining burlesque comedy and dreadful pathos, each tuned to a pitch so high that the audience is jolted from one physical response to another: laughter and tears, the two faces of Comedy and not Tragedy but rather the melodramatic concession of Pathos, looking straight at each other. Familiar territory today, but it smacked of radical egotism then. No one had brought it off before, and Chaplin—the orphaned music hall clown who became, through movies, the most popular comedian the world had ever known—defied his partners’ warnings that his ambition would cost him his audience.
Shakespeare refined comic relief as breathing space in the darkest of dramas. The reverse is more daunting, and Chaplin had more in mind than simply turning the tables by equilibrating the Tramp’s resourceful drolleries with intrusions of hearts-and-flowers sentimentality. Working in a speech-free medium in which expression is underscored by music, he sought a musical solution, a nearly fugal integration in which the emotional polarities enhance each other in a crescendo of complementary motives, ultimately cresting in a statement of the universal condition.
Take a deep breath, the wise men cautioned. It cannot be done.
The objections in 1920 were logical, technical, and founded on experience. A year earlier, Chaplin had mixed romance, allegory, and social ridicule in the three-reeler Sunnyside and suffered his first washout with the public; worse, all that juggling played havoc with his sense of tempo and structure. The setback stymied him for more than a year, yet he insisted on doubling down with The Kid, a six-reeler in which the Tramp’s hilarious impertinences bump up against the racking melodrama of a child’s abduction. The stakes were momentous. Chaplin, rebounding from a failure, had to make good on his unprecedented million-dollar contract with First National. He was advised that slapstick and sniffles did not mix; that fans would feel betrayed by a sudden change in course; that should he succeed in getting them to cry, he’d never get them to about-face and guffaw. People aren’t puppets, or are they? The Kid, an astonishing roller-coaster hour that cost $250,000 to produce, was an international sensation. In Richard Schickel’s 2003 film Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin, Richard Attenborough recalls seeing it as a boy and gets to the nub of Chaplin’s achievement: he usurped the viewer’s “choice” to laugh or cry—“he took control of me.”
Between The Kid and City Lights, Chaplin made three features that confirmed his plenary skills as a filmmaker. His powerful drama A Woman of Paris (1923) pleased critics but failed at the box office because Chaplin was not in it (beyond a disguised cameo), validating those who argued that the Little Tramp’s following did not extend to the little man behind the camera. The audience returned en masse for The Gold Rush (the film Chaplin once said he would most like to be remembered by) in 1925, and The Circus (which netted him the shaky consolation of an Honorary Oscar) in 1928, each sharpening the balance between farce and pathos, alternating the Tramp’s romantic longings with his customary humiliations and aggressive instinct for survival. He had enhanced the breadth and meaning of comedy: people went to a new Chaplin picture to laugh, yes, but also to lose control and be astonished.
He began City Lights in 1928, the year thousands of movie theaters converted to sound and any number of films in progress shut down for good, or resumed with emergency Band-Aids of dubbed dialogue and perhaps a song or two. Chaplin hated “talkies.” He hated and was deeply offended by the idea that the pantomimic art he’d innovated, mastered, expanded, and brought to global dominance had been rendered obsolete overnight by talk, the currency of theater and the music hall, the institutions he had left behind. Almost all the great silent film comedians, excepting Laurel and Hardy, would wither with talk. Their cinema alter egos, conceived in silence, conveyed sublime eloquence with their faces and bodies. The power of speech would not enlarge their personalities; it narrowed them. What kind of voice could augment or complement the face of cross-eyed Ben Turpin? Buster Keaton’s craggy timbre reduced his beautiful stone face to petulance; Harold Lloyd’s overarticulated speech made his everyman an oaf. Silent, they had sexual potential; talkative, they were impotent. Silent, they were larger than life; talkative, much smaller.
Chaplin, wilier than his rivals, didn’t even try. His own voice was high, thin, cultured—affected in the way of many autodidacts. (In the recut, scored, and narrated 1942 edition of The Gold Rush, his avuncular tones magnify the distance between him and the Tramp, whom he calls the Little Fellow, and who consequently appears more remote than in his rightful silent universe.) He ceased production just long enough to brood, and then affirmed his determination to move forward on his own terms. He would use audio technology strictly for comical effects (including a saxophonic parody of speechmakers) and to synchronize a score of his own devising. He was now paying the bills and could do as he pleased for as long as he pleased. He was stubborn, intrepid, but hardly blithe, having invested over $1.5 million, “every penny I possess.” He told Sam Goldwyn that if City Lights failed, “it will strike a deeper blow than anything that has happened to me in this life.”
He was every director’s dream producer. Whatever Chaplin needed, Chaplin provided. After spending months developing the script, he hired the actor Al Garcia, a member of his repertory company (he plays the antagonistic butler in City Lights), as casting director, a position Garcia had also assumed for The Circus, and announced auditions. Getting a part was no guarantee of keeping it. If Chaplin decided an actor was unsuitable, he didn’t hesitate to replace him or her and, if necessary, reshoot the relevant footage. Early in the production, he considered replacing the luminous Virginia Cherrill, and tested substitutes before bringing her back at a higher fee. He constructed a five-acre pool for the attempted-suicide scene and two streets to represent a downtown intersection. He spent hours, days, and weeks in his director’s chair improvising, waiting for inspiration to strike. Extraordinary footage survives detailing the sluggish route to perfection. In Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s 1983 Thames TV series The Unknown Chaplin, he is seen driving himself, his crew, and especially his leading lady crazy over one crucial sequence that lasts mere seconds in the film. The problem was to visually show the moment when Cherrill’s blind flower girl mistakes the Tramp for a rich man. After months of meditation, tirades, and frustration, he found the answer in the illusion of sound: immediately after she sells the Tramp a flower, she hears a chauffeured limousine pull away from the curb and assumes it’s his.
Naturally, the actor with the biggest challenge was Chaplin himself, not only because his films are his performances but because his part—his only part as of 1914—had changed over the years. City Lights would represent its apotheosis. The Tramp was the epoch’s most beloved character, a creation held in universal esteem by young and old, highbrow and low—a distinction he erased. In a 1923 letter to his sister, Franz Kafka chose as an example of privation in Berlin the fact that “only now could it buy itself The Kid.” In The 7 Lively Arts, the 1924 survey that launched pop culture criticism, Gilbert Seldes described Charlie, with “splay feet, the mustache, the derby hat, the rattan walking stick,” as “the universal symbol of laughter,” and Chaplin as “the man who, of all the men of our time, seems most assured of immortality.” But a lot had happened since the outset of the Tramp, including a world war, women’s suffrage, Prohibition, and the market crash, and though the films never reflected headlines, the Tramp and his maker did evolve.
Pathos did not initially dim the Tramp’s disposition. A graduate of the English music hall and Mack Sennett’s slapstick factory, Chaplin originated him as a frequently hostile, impulsive, cheerfully vulgar character who gave as good as he got. In the four dozen one- and two-reelers made at Keystone and Essanay in 1914 and 1915, he deflates self-important zealots but suggests little in the way of social conscience beyond serving as an unceremonious equalizer in a world of overdressed status seekers. It is here that the legendary Charlie is born and, in the process of becoming the cinema’s defining incarnation, perfects the pigeon-toed hobble, the skidding around corners, the balletic grace, and the all-purpose kick in the rump. If he personifies a deliberate American indifference to officialdom, especially police, he also carries the dust of old Europe on his bowler hat and raggedy dress suit, and in his dainty manners and pliant cane. Beset by bearded and beetle-browed men, he gets little relief from heavily corseted and just plain heavy women. He shakes his leg like a dog and goes it alone.
The twelve increasingly intricate short-form gems Chaplin made for Mutual in 1916 and 1917 represent a transition to a more personal filmmaking in which fastidiously designed gags develop at a more refined beat, integrated with moments of moral observation that bring the Tramp into a recognizably stable world. No longer looking out just for himself, he attaches himself to others—a young woman, a child, an inebriated pal. If The Cure proved that Chaplin could invent more and better gags on a situational theme than anyone else, The Immigrant, a candidate for the best two-reeler ever made, gave the Tramp the power of empathy, and through that empathy an emotional motive for his antics. As the Tramp and cinema moved inexorably toward feature-length stories, Chaplin would need more than gags to tell them. The Kid was the breakthrough, but by the time he embarked on City Lights, he must have realized that whatever its success, the Tramp had become a figure of the past, a drifter in the new world populated by Little Caesars and public enemies, spieling reporters and press flacks, Frankenstein and Dracula, Min and Bill, crooners and tappers, denizens of Morocco and Cimarron, wisecracking blondes and the brothers Marx. City Lights might well be the Tramp’s last stand. Chaplin would peel the bark off him.
On January 30, 1931, more than two years after City Lights began shooting, Chaplin orchestrated the first of his two premieres for the film, violating tradition as he rented the newly built Los Angeles Theatre downtown rather than a venue in Hollywood. He arrived in a quartet: on his arm, Georgia Hale (“Georgia” in The Gold Rush and a onetime candidate to replace Cherrill), and at his side, Mr. and Mrs. Albert Einstein. The second premiere, a week later at the George M. Cohan Theatre in Manhattan, was an equally glittery triumph. Chaplin paid for it all, including the newspaper ads. The critics and audiences were enchanted, embracing City Lights not as a provocation but as a celebration of a shared, cherished cultural phenomenon. One reviewer wrote that it was just as well it had no dialogue, as “the laughs and applause of last evening’s audience would have drowned them out.” It opened around the country and in much of the world in March, and grossed nearly four times its cost, one of the most lucrative pictures of the year. Still, one imagines filmgoers in those early days lined up for the show, staring in wonder as the audience emerges from a previous screening evidently choked up, flushed, hankies dabbing eyes. What kind of comedy is this?
The title is an attention-getter, an open metaphor that deceptively suggests a metropolitan gaiety in the key of Broadway, while setting up the true themes of misleading senses and the boundaries of class. People in the city hardly see one another at all, or mistake what they do see, hear, and feel, clinging instead to the synthetic lights of status. In Proust’s dictum, “None of us constitutes a material whole,” because we are filled out by those notions and presumptions other people have about us. City Lights is an amalgam of presumptions gone hilariously and sadly awry. The blind girl mistakes the Tramp for the rich, benevolent knight of her dreams; sight restored, she sees only a comically pitiable clown. A suicidal millionaire embraces the Tramp who saved his life as his boon companion as long as he’s blind drunk; sober, he’s appalled by the filthy wretch. It’s easy to get things wrong. At a party, the Tramp confuses a dessert bombe with a bald pate; as a street cleaner, he mistakes a slab of cheese for a cake of soap. Police confuse the Tramp with violently inept thieves. Boxers and a referee respond to the bell with Pavlovian rectitude no matter how often it rings.
The subtitle is also significant: A Comedy Romance in Pantomime. Here Chaplin is squarely in the American literary tradition, using romance as Hawthorne intended, as a license to blend the real and the marvelous, expanding the writer’s scope of imagination. Hawthorne begins his twice-told tale “The Threefold Destiny”: “I have sometimes produced a singular and not unpleasing effect, so far as my own mind was concerned, by imagining a train of incidents, in which the spirit and mechanism of the faëry legend should be combined with the characters and manners of familiar life”—the very point echoed in Chaplin’s rubric. City Lights is erected on a supernatural proposition: a doctor in Freud’s Vienna can cure blindness. What’s more, he does the operation for free, come one, come all. All you need is a ticket to ride.
It should be noted that this plot device was begging for a fall during the two years Chaplin made City Lights. It formed the climax of one of the most successful and preposterous best sellers of 1929, Lloyd C. Douglas’s Magnificent Obsession. In the movies made from that book in later years, the blindness business is front and center, but in the novel it’s saved for last:
Dawn was breaking. The little clock ticked energetically on the bureau. Birds twittered sleepily, outside the window. Bells tolled matins.
There was a weary sigh from the bed. Julie Craig bent over it, solicitously.
And then, in that dear voice, curiously like a muted ’cello, between hysterical little sobs, Bobby Merrick’s patient murmured:
“Oh—Blessed God—I can see!”
A parody slap-down was obviously in order, though one could hardly improve on sleepily twittering birds and that “dear voice.” Considering the immense popularity of the book, it does not seem unlikely that Chaplin considered such an approach. If so, it is a measure of his artistic discipline and restraint that he chose to play this part of the story completely straight, as a “romantic” contrivance.
One line in the opening titles incited controversy, the one that identifies Chaplin as composer of the score. True, the credits also acknowledge a melody, “La violetera,” by José Padilla (the prolific Spanish composer born five weeks after Chaplin); arrangements by Arthur Johnston (the songwriter later associated with Bing Crosby: “Just One More Chance,” “Pennies from Heaven”); and musical direction by Alfred Newman (the composer and conductor who became a Twentieth Century-Fox legend: forty-five Oscar nominations, nine wins). Still: composer? Was there nothing Chaplin couldn’t do? Or was he claiming credit for humming a few melodies that the pros filled out for him? The self-taught cellist and violinist had no arranging abilities and could not have written a score; he needed, at the very least, an “amanuensis” for that, as he freely conceded. But it is also true that he loathed to share credits, and was successfully sued for initially failing to acknowledge Padilla on-screen as the composer of the picture’s most haunting motif, the flower-girl theme. It’s a wonder he wasn’t sued more often because, in the lingo of our day, he was a born sampler, most famously in The Great Dictator (1940), as Hynkel dances his incomparable pas de deux with a globe to Lohengrin—finding in Wagner what the critic Stuart Mitchner calls a “subtle, insidious splendor” and “the melodic equivalent of his genius.”
Wagner is no less an influence on City Lights, in Chaplin’s inventive use of leitmotif, the operatic style of musically mapping the characters and emotional peaks with identifying themes. Most of these bittersweet strains are unmistakably Chaplinesque, creating an ardent, at times claustrophobic counterpoint to the action. After City Lights, he composed all his film scores (including for rereleases of films that preceded it), hiring assistants to put his melodies on paper. His music exhibited a consistently recognizable style and even produced a couple of sentimental pop hits: “Smile,” a standard introduced by Nat King Cole in 1954, adapted from the score for Modern Times (1936); and “Eternally,” from the score for Limelight (1952), which brought Chaplin his only competitive Oscar, albeit in 1972, on the grounds that the picture had never previously played in California. According to Theodore Huff’s analysis of the City Lights score, Chaplin composed twenty discrete themes and ninety-five cues, not including instrumental bits that Mickey Mouse the action. But not all the melodies are by Chaplin. One of the joys of the score is its canny sampling of tunes, either undisguised or in variational form, from “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “Old Folks at Home,” and “Scheherazade” to “I Hear You Calling,” “How Dry I Am,” and “St. Louis Blues.” They mesh with Chaplin’s generic renditions of jazz, opera, the waltz, the rhumba, the tango, and the apache dance, as well as his ominously blues-tinged fanfare for trumpet, a refrain throughout the film. Yet the score as a whole is far from generic: meticulously tailored to each scene, it amplifies emotions, comments on the action, and adds several jokes.
The last are evident from the first scene, an unveiling ceremony at which a drape is lifted to reveal the Tramp asleep in the arms of a monstrous tableau statue armed with a towering sword, representing peace and the higher aspirations of the city—instantly brought low. Chaplin did not lack for critics when he first achieved popularity in 1914, and the complaints usually involved accusations of vulgarity: too many dented rumps, hapless lushes, and rude awakenings. The first scene in City Lights is surely the most vulgar Chaplin ever shot; it would not have survived the Production Code a few years later. Even today, it is pretty startling, as most of it involves the Tramp’s rear end, which is hoisted by the sword before resting on the male statue’s face and the female statue’s hand, which in turn sets off the movie’s first (but not last) nose-thumbing, a gesture once regarded in a way akin to today’s middle finger. The city officials are dubbed by saxophone squeals, and the national anthem is invoked only to diddle the last refuge of a scoundrel. The Tramp wanders from that statue to another, in a gallery’s window, and we can surmise how the censors would have reacted to its nude realism, closely appraised by the Tramp at his own peril.
He’s an outsider but also the king of his domain, and when he encounters a beautiful and quite real girl selling flowers on the street, he naturally offers his last coin for a boutonniere. Yet it is only when he realizes she’s blind that he grows infatuated with her, another outsider, even lower on the social scale than he. City Lights explicitly ties her handicap to her poverty; only with her sight restored can she get a job inside—and perhaps even manage—a flower shop. While he is marveling at her, a heartrending apparition, the director drives the story forward with two superbly economical turns, as the blind girl is betrayed by her senses: the touch of his once-expensive sleeve and the sound of the departing limo conspire to render him as someone he is not. Yet as the trumpet fanfare blows, he means to be that someone. That’s when she inadvertently tosses a pot of water in his face.
And there we have the film’s MO. Every time he gets moony and the picture follows him into the lamentations of “La violetera,” a cosmic banana peel brings him and the picture back to earth. The timing is impeccable, and Chaplin, the most transparent of actors, lets us know what he is thinking and feeling every second. The difference between pathos and sentimentality is the difference between art and manipulation—any director worth his salt can manipulate basic emotions. But Chaplin husbands those emotions in a way that few other filmmakers (Leo McCarey is one) could do. He turns us at will between the funniest routines ever put on film and a poignant fairy tale, but never plays our empathy cheap. He wants us to cry only once, at the very end, and not for her.
The uproarious scene of the millionaire’s attempted suicide (can comedy get much blacker than this?) reverses the gears again when, just as we are catching our breath, “La violetera” is reprised as the Tramp retrieves his flower from the bench. No one did drunkenness or parodied popular dances better than Chaplin, and he does both in the nightclub, also spraying seltzer at a woman’s flaming bottom before climaxing an absolutely perfect shimmy. Then the dawn: the millionaire can no longer see the Tramp, who again grows moony about the blind girl, until a pot falls on his head. Then the night: more reverie and confusion. The Tramp spins through a world of incredibly unreliable people. Yet when next he is rudely rousted from bed (to a cunning musical arrangement suggesting the hand of Alfred Newman), he has a mission. He will earn money to help the girl, who is quite right in thinking him the kind of generous, good man who will give his all to ease her distress. He dons a pith helmet to clean the streets, which are suddenly overrun by horses and an elephant. Learning of the miracle doctor in Vienna and the girl’s urgent debt to her landlord, he becomes a boxer, tangoing his way to immortality and defeat in one of the greatest of all Chaplin set pieces—some twelve minutes of nonstop inspiration, including pre- and postfight sequences. The match itself is staged with a precision worthy of Balanchine, until the trumpet tolls.
Of course, he gets the money anyway, turns it over to the girl, and goes to jail for seven or eight months. Returning to the neighborhood, much the worse for wear, he is beset by kids, to the amusement of the woman in the flower shop. Mocking his look of devotion (“I’ve made a conquest”), she offers him a flower and a coin. The operation has given her not only sight but social mobility; she is now an insider. But she leaves her domain to bestow a little condescending mercy, feels his hand and sleeve, and suddenly knows the identity of Prince Charming. The score abandons “La violetera” for the gathering storm of Chaplin’s own love theme. “You can see now?” he asks, pointing to his own eyes, a modest gesture of enormous power. And then, after showing us the girl’s subdued nod, Chaplin gives us the single most memorable image in his entire oeuvre: the close-up of a clown shyly, girlishly smiling, flower trailing from his hand, fingers to mouth, as if biting a nail, and we realize we have never seen the Tramp so clearly, so pitilessly close up. If we ever thought him “cute,” we are disabused by the hard lines around his eyes, the black gums, the pathetic greasepaint eyebrows and effete mustache—the face of a middle-aged vagrant, a man without a future. For the first time, she sees him; we see him; and, looking directly into her eyes, he sees himself. And it’s devastating.
In a sense, the Tramp was finished in that shot. There would be later iterations: the factory worker in Modern Times, who enters the land of the spoken word singing a nonsense song; and Hitler warranted a return of sorts in The Great Dictator. Chaplin brought back the Tramp during the war, with much success, in the revised version of The Gold Rush. And then America, wounded by his politics, shocked by his sexual peccadilloes, fell out of love with Charlie Chaplin. It no longer cared about him or his pictures, which, though often brilliant, became bitterly didactic. For a long time, the immortal Tramp was reduced to nothing more than that most hollow of modern clichés: an icon.
Gary Giddins is the executive director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His books include Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, Natural Selection, Weather Bird, Warning Shadows: Home Alone with Classic Cinema, and, most recently, a revised edition of Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker.