This is an entry in "The Big Ones," a series covering 32 classic films for the first time on The Dancing Image. There are spoilers.
"Here is my secret. It is very simple: one sees well only with the heart. The essential is invisible to the eye." - Antoine de Saint Exupéry, The Little PrinceThe genius of City Lights lies in its paradoxical ability to convey the heart's invisible essence in entirely visual terms. Entirely visual terms: shot when Hollywood had completely switched over to talkies, the film stubbornly sticks to silence. There are a few clever exceptions. Charlie swallows a whistle which, whenever he hiccups, interrupts entertainers, calls cabs, and attracts every dog in the neighborhood. When boxing (in what is probably the film's funniest and most brilliant sequence), the mismatched Tramp somehow gets the bell rope tied to his neck, so that he can't go very far without it dinging and either calling him back into the ring or deceptively luring him into a well-earned respite. Most notably, the film opens with sound, "dialogue" of a sort which is actually over-recorded gibberish pouring forth from a pontificating politician. It's not only a humorous send-up of official pomposity, but a goof on Hollywood's new obsession with sound itself.
However, while the verbal distortion brings a smile to the face, it is appropriately enough a visual revelation that makes one laugh out loud: a white sheet is lifted from a newly christened monument, and Chaplin is discovered sleeping in the arms of the bombastic statuary, ironically called "Peace and Prosperity." He will experience little of either throughout the course of the movie, yet he does get get little tastes - teases really - of both peace and prosperity throughout. One could say that the comedy is inspired by the glimpses of prosperity (via a wealthy drunkard who showers money and good times on the Tramp - at least until he sobers up), while the pathos is provided by the potential for peace (in the form of a beautiful flower girl who loves Charlie, sight unseen, for his generosity).
Like so many great films, City Lights is a story of outsiders but - like most entertainments, Hollywood in particular - it allows its underdogs moments of confrontation with and experience amongst the top dogs, and even the occasional victory. Unlike Bicycle Thieves or even Chaplin's own later Modern Times, the characters in City Lights are not held underwater; rather they bob up and down and gasp for air like the Tramp when he is accidentally roped to a rock and thrown in the bay. Following that particular incident, he is taken on a whirlwind tour of mansions and nightclubs and drunken auto rides, later to partake in a party of the rich and idle, somewhere we would not have expected to find him at film's beginning.This rich man/poor man dichotomy gets its clearest - and funniest - representation shortly after the millionaire's butler has given the Tramp the heave-ho; still in command of the rich man's car, the pickled parvenu goes for a joyride, only halting near a street corner to grab a half-finished cigarette lying in the gutter. Another bum, going for the same stub, reels in shock: a well-dressed auto driver, shoving him aside for a lousy smoke!
Charlie doesn't flinch; even in his temporarily luxurious state, the Tramp's streetwise instincts are intact. And well they should be, because soon he's back in those oversize trousers, undersized jacket, and black bowler; the hungover, Cunard-bound millionaire is no longer mindful of the humble man who saved his life. The Tramp takes it in stride - a bit of a double take, but then a shrug and a shuffle off to the next adventure. Back underwater and who knows when he'll come up for a breath again, but it probably won't be long - this little fellow is both lucky and unlucky, at once beleaguered and resilient. Wave after wave rolls along, lifting him up on its crest before dropping him back down into the turbulent whitewater: a job! - cleaning up animal poop? - but still, a job! - unless he gets fired... - but wait, a chance to earn money boxing! with a lightweight opponent! - until the scrawny guy gets conked out and the new mug doesn't seen so interested in splitting 50/50 and here he comes swinging... - ah, but after the knockout, looks who's back! The millionaire! Willing to lend $1000! Enough for the blind girl's rent, forty times over! - but wait, who's that hiding in the closet?...
Chaplin himself was, of course, one of the most famous men in the world, wealthy and independent. How fascinating that he achieved and sustained his fame by playing a homeless man in rags, scorned by authorities and the emblems of what Alfred Doolittle called "middle-class morality." (Perhaps uncoincidentally, Bernard Shaw called Chaplin "the only genius to come out of the movie industry.") Indeed, the roller-coaster ride of poverty and wealth shown in City Lights probably owes something to Chaplin's own experience, growing up dirt-poor and then becoming fabulously rich. But it also owes something not just to the broad idea of the American Dream (which perhaps exaggerates the possibilities of rags to riches) but a more general Hollywood sensibility. I'm not sure it's true anymore, but back in the thirties quite a lot of stars, and even many of the moguls, came from hardscrabble immigrant stock - to their minds, maybe more so than for latter-day film industry professionals, the guttersnipe and the gentleman were not so far apart. But while this provides some background for the ease with which the Tramp is accepted into the world of wealth, what about the speed with which he is repelled again?
Well, the moguls still encountered anti-Semitism in their upward climb, and in turn the stars (unless they were lucky enough to manage their own careers, like Chaplin) found their prosperity a gilded cage which could collapse on an irritable boss' whim. Yet there is probably a wider reason for the instability of position evinced in City Lights -here, even before the more on-the-nose social commentary of Modern Times, we are probably seeing a reflection of the Great Depression knocking down fortunes around the world, and shattering the hopes of those whose fortunes had not yet been made. After all, The Gold Rush ends with the Tramp's future secure; though he wins Georgia's heart in his old prospector's clothes, he's only posing in them for a picture - poverty is safely in the past. But City Lights has no such blessedly secure conclusion. Instead, there is another mix-up, another case of mistaken identity and confusion about a police hunt, but this time they all redound to the Tramp's disadvantage. He is accused of stealing $1000 from his rich friend due to an elaborate assault during a burglary. Then he is off to jail, just barely managing to pass his unexpectedly illicit profit to the beloved flower-girl in the nick of time.
From there, it's on to that famous ending, one of the most iconic moments in cinema. It seems to transcend the film's romanticism and pathos, and even those averse to sentimentality must shudder and perhaps even sob when that flicker of recognition ignites the-no-longer-blind-girl's expression. Seeing City Lights on the big screen a few years ago, I was shocked by the Tramp's appearance. I had never noticed just how ragged he looked in that final scene - no longer a lovable tramp, but a pathetic bum: his cartoonish clothing now reduced to unattractive rags, no shirt underneath his coat, handkerchiefs hanging out of the seat of his pants. But worst of all, his spirit seems sapped. No longer is this the plucky scamp who wonders if he'll wake up in an alley or a rich man's bed tomorrow morning, who can casually - so casually it's not even intentional - thumb his nose at rotund orators. Instead he looks tired, hopeless, and worst of all feeble-minded.
This may be the lowest we've ever seen the Tramp, staring at a picture window with a toothy grin, almost vacant except for the heartening memory he has of the girl looking back at him, that innocent girl now a laughing, sophisticated woman, affectionately but mockingly remarking to a co-worker, "I've made a conquest!" This is a Galatea made not only equal to Pygmalion, an Eliza not only able to match wits with Prof. Higgens, but a creation that has surpassed the creator, a creation that has, in fact, exposed the creator himself as a fabrication. We wonder if the Tramp even understands what she is saying, so childish seems his grin, so sickly his eyes. Only when the girl herself realizes who he is, handing him a flower and, through touch, seeing him for the first time, do we start to sense that - even if he has lost his wit - Charlie is still fully aware of what this situation means. Dignity has disappeared, but not recognition.
What is so poignant about this moment, what resonates so deeply, is that the two characters are no closer together now, perhaps less so, than they were when one of them was blind. Then, they lived in a world of dream and illusion but their different forms of naivete united them; now, inhabiting the same physical and social reality, they are worlds apart. Throughout the course of the narrative, it was the Tramp whose position fluctuated, while the flower-girl stayed constant in both poverty and repose. Now he seems spent, and it is she who has been elevated to a new station in life. They were two outsiders, clinging to one another in a shared sense of distance from the "normal" world, the safe and secure universe from which they were castaways. How sad to see that, in her happiness, in his success, she is no longer an outsider at all. This is the most bittersweet aspect of her encounter with the unlikely benefactor.
All of this is, of course, beyond the eye's register - or should be, for us as well as for the flower-girl. After all, it is touch, not sight, that brings back the whole sensation of being an outsider, of having a dream provider, of being in love with a hero. And yet...we are not touching his sleeve or face. We are watching someone else doing this, and experiencing the emotions vicariously. So in the very act of suggesting the truth in the Little Prince's words, the film disproves them. Chaplin's genius is to make the essential, the perception of the heart, visible to the eye after all (and visible in the eye too; Virginia Cherrill, whose portrayal of a blind girl throughout is entirely convincing, conveys her shock and confusion with her eyes, which temporarily seem to go blind again, staring so intensely as the Tramp that she seems to be looking through or past him, seeing beyond physical reality into another realm). It's a kind of alchemical magic; if his relation to the flower-girl ironically echoes Shaw's Pygmalion, then the director's relation to the movie itself echoes the original myth of Pygmalion, in which inanimate material is given life by the brilliance of an artist (a source either tacitly or inadvertently acknowledged in the humorous moment when Chaplin ponders a luscious nude sculpture in a boutique.)
Yet the movie does not end with the flower-girl's recognition, but instead, in a moment of triumphant ambiguity, the Tramp himself. If he hasn't lost his mind, dazzled by dim recognition rather than engaged contemplation, what is he experiencing? Pride? Shame? Is he indifferent to his own humiliating condition, awed by the beauty of this creature he had not expected to see? Or is he filled with nostalgia for the illusion, for the dream, which can never again be conjured? Certainly, all these feelings and more could be racing through his head simultaneously. Yet this time, at least, I saw something else too, an almost tranquil acceptance amidst the giddy tremors and nervous tics. The Tramp's hesitant yet pleased expression at the end of City Lights does not so much express hope of acceptance, nor even satisfaction at what he has wrought, but a sensation more wistful and yet more firm. At film's end, he has not found prosperity. It does appear, however, that he has found peace.
City Lights appears at 1:15 in "Talking, Singing, Dancing Pictures," a chapter in my video series "32 Days of Movies."