Friday, May 4, 2012
City Lights was an anachronism when it first appeared, a new silent production from Charles Chaplin, one of the masters of silent comedy, at a time when the rest of Hollywood was eagerly embracing the arrival of sound. Released in 1931, when silent film was all but dying out, the film opens by immediately mocking the talking pictures, with a scene where a group of local dignitaries deliver speeches commemorating the unveiling of a statue. As they speak, the synchronized soundtrack (Chaplin's one modest concession to the new technology) features muffled nonsense noises, as though Chaplin is making a point, up front, of how irrelevant and silly so much dialogue is — as Norma Desmond would say in Sunset Blvd., it's all just "talk, talk, talk," and Chaplin for one doesn't need it.
In fact, City Lights has only what is absolutely necessary; it's a tightly constructed and incessantly funny flick that's also a moving love story between Chaplin's Tramp and the blind flower seller (Virginia Cherrill) with whom he falls in love. Though the Tramp, as ever, is broke and destitute — in the opening scenes he's sleeping curled up in the arms of a statue — he is determined to help the struggling blind girl and her grandmother (Florence Lee), who face eviction from their apartment while dealing with the girl's poor health. Obviously, this is a story about class, as with many of Chaplin's greatest works, and underneath the film's gentle humor and its romantic warmth lies a bittersweet awareness of the struggles of the working class. In the very first scene between the Tramp and the flower seller, he buys a flower from her, scrounging around in his pockets for the money to give her, and not accepting any change back. As they're talking, an obviously wealthy gentleman runs by, not even glancing at the Tramp or the flower girl, as though they're invisible to him, with no possibility of registering in his mind as he gets into his fancy car. Though he could certainly afford a flower, it would never occur to him to pause and buy one.
Chaplin develops a similar dynamic with the character of the millionaire (Harry Myers) who the Tramp befriends by saving the distraught rich man from killing himself over his divorce, in a very funny and fluidly paced slapstick scene in which the two men not only repeatedly fall into the water, but more importantly, continually teeter on the edge of falling in. (Chaplin knows well that so much of comedy is about restraint and teasing, as when he has the Tramp continually stepping just to the edge of a hole that opens up in the sidewalk, unseen, behind him. We expect the Tramp to fall in but somehow it's even funnier that he doesn't, at least not right away.) The Tramp and the rich man provide another of the film's allegories on wealth, because when the rich man is drunk, he considers the Tramp his best friend for saving him, but whenever he sobers up, he completely forgets about the homeless wanderer who'd rescued him. Thus he alternates between embracing the Tramp as a friend and ordering his servants to kick Chaplin out of his mansion, which the snooty servants very eagerly do.
This commentary on class awareness runs all through the film. The flower girl mistakenly believes the Tramp to be a rich gentleman, and when, in the film's justly legendary final scene, she learns his true identity, Chaplin simply inserts a laconic title card with a rich double meaning — "yes, I can see now" — before Chaplin's endearing final grin. That scene is all about the closeups, the faces, Chaplin hiding his mouth with a flower before finally showing his toothy smile for the final image, the flower girl letting so many emotions ripple across her face as the full import of the Tramp's charity towards her really hits home. Cherrill delivers a wonderful, charming, moving performance, and Chaplin's closeups of her, throughout the film, never fail to be tinged with an element of rapturous awe, something spiritual in the way he idealizes her as an avatar of goodness and purity and feminine beauty — which of course is the way the besotted Tramp sees her.
Of course, the film is also stacked with one delightful comic set piece after another, delivered with the sure hand of a director and performer at the very peak of his talent. Especially marvelous is the boxing match, which has a fluidity and grace to it that couldn't be more different from the crude slapstick violence with which Chaplin started his career at Keystone Studios; here, the boxers really seem to be dancing, a three-way dance that involves a referee who insists on sticking himself right in between the fighters, who trade blows by craning their arms around the other man. The sense of movement here is exhilarating, as the boxers twirl around, sometimes changing "partners" so that one of them is actually squaring off against the referee instead of one another.
City Lights is a marvel of the cinema, a warm and funny classic bursting with the simple humanity of Chaplin's Tramp. Its ending, with its rich emotional complexity and ambiguity, provides one of the most eloquent proofs of the enduring power and beauty of silent film, because with just a few words and those glorious closeups of the leads, Chaplin says so much without actually saying a word aloud.