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City Lights is a perfect film. It is imaginative and expansive and artfully efficient. Each and every scene is of critical importance, but only when you look back on the story in toto. There is no particular urgency to any one part, save the film’s devastating, syrupy sweet conclusion, and this easiness allows you to melt in to each part without looking ahead or wondering where all of this going.
Take the film’s opening scene – one which has Charlie Chaplin’s beloved Tramp spoiling the unveiling of a new statue to a crowd of dignitaries. The cloth draping the statue is pulled away, revealing the Tramp fast asleep. Embarrassed, he scrambles to depart the scene as quickly and as politely as he possibly can, a task made quite difficult by the sword that ends up splitting the seat of his already shoddy pants.
This is as superfluous a moment as City Lights has to offer, but it sets the stage for everything that follows. It establishes the Tramp as an outcast – a persona non grata in the extreme – but also a hapless charmer. He apologizes profusely even as he tries to bolt. He is lovable from the first moment he appears on screen.
The infamous boxing scene – if not the very best in the film, then certainly the most riotously funny – serves a similar function, and is hardly critical to the proceedings. As the Tramp perfectly mimics the movement of the referee in the ring, cowering behind him to avoid the punches of a fearsome opponent, you are hit with both his courage and his cowardice. The Tramp will risk being battered in the ring, but he isn’t stupid about it. He sees no honor in being dealt a knockout blow, only in trying to help his beloved. He ends up that much easier to identify with as a result. Doing the right thing in the name of love is hard enough all by itself.
It is the love story, of course, that is the film’s beating pulse. It is what takes the aimless Tramp off that statue at the beginning and lands him in the boxing ring and on the streets picking up animal dung. Excise all of the other parts, just leaving the love story, and you would have a pretty terrific short film. But then you wouldn’t have City Lights.
The Tramp cuts a quite tragic figure if you remove the object of his affections from the picture. He is homeless and aimless, sure. Worst of all, though: he is incredibly lonely. He is bullied by newspaper boys and shopkeeps as he strolls about the streets, his gentlemanly nature unseen by almost everyone. He has one “friend” – an alcoholic millionaire who disavows him every time his buzz wears off.
This is a bleak existence without the blind Flower Girl. The Tramp falls hard for her after purchasing one of her flowers with what must be his last bit of coin. He makes the buy before realizing that she is blind or that she has confused him with a rich man. And he is so smitten that a bucket of water to the face can’t shake his sudden resolve.
That first meeting between the Tramp and the Flower Girl sets in motion what might be the greatest final scene in film history. In their final meeting, The Tramp, fresh from a months-long stretch in prison, happens upon the Flower Girl and finds that her blindness has been cured. He can not believe it is her. She does not realize it is him until their hands touch. And then it all seems to wash over Virginia Cherrill’s emotive, innocent face. A reunion only counts when they both know it is one, and finally they do.
It packs a surprisingly poignant punch for a film that starts with its hero’s pants being split open and devotes an entire scene to scatological humor (the one where the Tramp tries to hold down a job as a street-sweeper but avoid picking up the dung from all manner of animal crossing his path). But that poignancy is only surprising when considering the film’s vignettes in a vacuum. All of the discomfort and humiliation experienced by the Tramp serves a purpose – paying the Flower Girl’s rent and – eventually, maybe someday – sending her to a doctor who can give her the gift of sight.
The Tramp has sacrificed a great deal for this one deep connection, and in so doing he has mirrored Chaplin himself. There’s a determination and reckless independence to Chaplin’s signature character that carries through to his work. By the time he made City Lights, Chaplin was financially independent and so could afford to spend week after week on single takes, as he did on the first meeting between the Flower Girl and the Tramp.
“The blind Flower Girl, that’s a beautiful dance there. Everything I do is a dance. … We took this scene day after day. I’d be watching her, know instantly if it wasn’t right. A contour hurts me if it’s not right,” Chaplin told Time in a 1967 interview. “’Flower, sir?’ with her arm sticking straight out. She’d be going to the floor, searching – I wanted her head one side – and talk to me from there and stop, and I say, ‘Don’t you see?’ and she’s looking up there, and I have the rose – all coming together. Has to be perfect. It took a long time.
“She was an amateur. I picked her because she was the only one who could look blind without being offensive.”
This is Chaplin the perfectionist and the control freak. There is immense and irrepressible natural talent in his pantomime comedy. Much of what he does can not be taught. But to fixate on this is to ignore the lessons of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. Chaplin is a freakish talent and also an obsessive. Lurking beneath the surface of City Lights is a grind, one that is not so unlike the Tramp’s journey. Here is a boxer and a street-sweeper and a rich alcoholic’s sycophant working toward something he holds more dear than his dignity or personal safety or, ultimately, his freedom.
No matter how many takes it took, Chaplin got every scene right, and he had the editorial eye to know when he finally had what he needed. He wasn’t just the star. He wrote. He directed. He even composed the score.
This is genius – a tornado of toil and talent that unfolds lightly and effortlessly.