City Lights (1931)


Directed by and starring Charlie Chaplin

I’ve only seen a handful of silent films, and I bet many people are in the same boat.  It’s not easy to force yourself to sit down and watch 90 minutes of no talking.  It’s an adjustment, like waiting for your ears to pop after a long flight.

At first I wondered how a film could sustain itself for 90 minutes like this, but that’s because I’m used to films that rely on dialogue and occasionally voiceover.  Chaplin’s City Lights is a very physical film.  Chaplin’s famous character, the Tramp, finds himself in all sorts of predicaments.  He stumbles into a situation then stumbles out.  There are often not many consequences to his actions as he simply moves on, like a vagabond.

The Tramp first appears sleeping on a statue during the statue’s unveiling.  He is homeless, essentially, and we get no sense of any deeper connection or relationships in his life.  On one hand, sure, this is a fairly broad comedy with a protagonist who finds himself in unorthodox pickles, so why would there be a focus on the humanity of the character?  It’s not like we know anything about him (beyond what you might know of the character outside of the film based on previous viewing experiences).  In this story, he’s just a guy, defined by what he wears and how he moves, not what he wants.

Everything he does is based on a very immediate need, but that changes when he meets a blind flower girl.  The Tramp’s sensitivity and affection for this girl is endearing, and it feels relatable.

That night the Tramp runs across a drunken millionaire who tries to drown himself. The tramp saves him, and the millionaire immediately embraces him as a dear friend.  Despite the millionaire’s affection, the Tramp hasn’t forgotten the flower girl as he hurries back to pick up the flower her bought from her.

For a moment, though, the Tramp is swept up in the life of the millionaire who drags him out for a night of partying.  The next morning, however, the sober millionaire doesn’t recognize the Tramp.  Before sobering up, he gives the Tramp plenty of money so he can buy flowers from the flower girl.  The tramp then gives her a ride home in the millionaire’s car, playing up the idea that he himself is wealthy.

We see that the flower girl is just as taken with the Tramp as he is with her.  The Tramp tries to perpetuate the image that he is wealthy, and he promises to help the blind girl get her sight back when he sees an article about a medical breakthrough that can cure blindness.

When the blind girl and her grandmother receive an eviction notice, the Tramp sets out to get the money for them.  The millionaire doesn’t recognize the Tramp due to his sobriety, and then he leaves for Europe, meaning the Tramp is on his own.  He gets a job, but that doesn’t pay enough so he gets pulled into a winner take all boxing match.  It’s a pretty incredible scene on its own, and Chaplin’s rhythmic movements couple with the jaunty music is burned into my mind.  It’s a good representation of all of his physical comedy, complete with the choreography, unlikely bad luck and a great deal of comedy.

The Tramp loses the fight, but then he runs into the once again drunk millionaire, back from Europe.  He asks the rich man for money to help the blind girl, and the rich man gives him a thousand dollars.  A moment later the two of them are assaulted by two would be thieves.  One of them hits the millionaire on the head, knocking him unconscious before he wakes up, suddenly sober.  When the cops arrive, everything looks as though the Tramp is the thief, complete with the thousand dollars in his pocket.  He evades the police long enough to deliver the money to the Tramp, enabling her to avoid eviction as well as to get her eyesight back.

He goes to prison for his perceived crime, and upon his release he recognizes the flower girl who has eagerly awaited his return.  Based on the Tramp’s recurring bad luck, you expect the now not blind flower girl to reject him once she sees him.  After all he is a bit of an odd looking guy, with his torn clothing and thick (painted) eyebrows.  In other words, he’s definitely not the wealthy man he pretended to be.  But when the flower girl touches his hand, she recognizes his touch.  They smile at each other, and the film ends warmly.  The Tramp, forever an outcast, has met someone who likes him back.

The Tramp doesn’t fit in anywhere.  His jet black clothing sticks out like he’s the runt in the family, and his torn clothes make him the subject of ridicule.  He’s weaker, shorter and poorer than everyone else when it matters most.  The moment we meet him, he’s already the subject of fury as an angry crowd watches the statue unveiling ceremony.  As always, the Tramp tries as hard as he can to fix his mistakes.  In this case, once he sees the crowd staring at him, he quickly tries to scramble down the statue but gets stuck on a sword in the process.  When the national anthem begins, he tries to salute the flag even while struggling to gain traction, slipping this way and that.

The Tramp seems to dissolve into society.  He exists well enough to be alive, but other than that he just bounces around like a pebble caught in your shoe.  Like that pebble that you try to get rid of, the rest of society tries to get rid of him, though only by making his life difficult.  Kids poke fun at him, even stealing his cane and blowing makeshift darts at him. All the Tramp does is observe the world around him, only participating when he gets in trouble.  His incredible physicality is often in service of his own life.  The scene I’m thinking of the most is when he tries to save the wealthy man from suicide, but in the process he somehow gets the rope slung around his own neck as the tethered rock is tossed into the river.  Then the Tramp finds himself struggling not to drown.

The Tramp always bounces back.  Whether it’s the near-fatal drowning or the knockout he suffers in the boxing ring, he never seems defeated.  I don’t know what to make of all this, because the comedy is meant to be funny, and it is.  I don’t think there is more to analyze about his eternal suffering but not suffering.  He just endures, and he’s a clown figure, allowing the audience to laugh at his pain.  Sometimes he gets himself into trouble (like sleeping on the statue, but other times he’s just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Within the story, the Tramp has two friends, but in each case they are unable to see something about him so it feels like he’s hiding.  The millionaire, of course, can’t see him when he’s sober, possibly a subconscious rejection of the Tramp based on his appearance, and the blind girl literally can’t see him.  Each person’s affection for him hints at the inherent likability of the character, but their inability to actually see him seems to reflect the society’s view of the Tramp.  Under the surface he’s a lovable, kind character, but when you first see him he’s funny looking, poor and probably tripping over something.

All of the Tramp’s mishaps are meant to be funny, but they also show a guy struggling to interact with a pretty ordinary world in which everybody else easily blends in.  The Tramp has difficulty with even the simplest of movements.  If you picture him walking down a street, you can probably imagine him getting stuck in a few different traps, without even knowing what those traps are.  The point is that there are booby traps, and the Tramp has a knack for finding them.

So at the end, when the blind girl gets her sight back and still accepts him, it’s a powerful moment demonstrating two people looking past the surface and connecting on a deeper level.  It’s just a nice thing to see, and it’s made more exciting because of all the bumps and bruises we’ve see the Tramp suffer.

Last couple of notes: I didn’t know the context of this film going in, but after some light reading I learned that this film was released a couple years after movies began to incorporate sound, meaning this didn’t have to be a silent picture.  In fact, it’s not silent.  There is no dialogue, but we hear certain sound effects (the Tramp sucking in spaghetti, gunshots, the boxing ring bell, etc.), and in the very first scene there is a man speaking, emanating an unintelligible noise meant to be speech.  It’s Chaplin’s own statement on the role of sound in film, basically saying it’s nonsensical and unimportant.  To me and probably everyone else today, we can see how crucial sound is to a good story, but at the heart of film, you’re supposed to show, not tell.  Movies are based upon sight more than audio, and the Tramp is a very physical character.  It’s easy to see why the Tramp benefits from silent films, because the way he interacts with the world is completely physical.  We learn how he views the world and how the world views him by the way he waddles, the way he tumbles, the way he falls and the way he hugs.  The Tramp, in other words, probably can’t live in the sound era, but I think he belongs to the silent era just as much as the silent era belongs to him.

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