Review by Evan Kindley
Posted on 16 January 2008
Source 35mm print
Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights was his first picture of the post-talkie era, and it begins with a mildly cruel joke at the expense of its audience. As the film begins, a public monument to “PEACE AND PLENTY” – already a grim irony, in 1931 America – is being unveiled. A crowd is gathered; politicians are making speeches. With a great surge of public pride, the orator opens his mouth and out comes… a kazoo. The basic joke here is familiar from Charlie Brown cartoons, in which muted trumpets replace the voices of the adults: by replacing the voice of authority with a ridiculous noise, the very idea of important or authoritative speech is mocked. This sets the irreverent, antiauthoritarian tone for City Lights, a film that has much invested in appearing to side with the underdog.
But the joke is also a tease, even a gesture of arrogance. There is no further spoken dialogue in City Lights, distorted or otherwise; it proceeds from this point as if the silent era had never ended. Chaplin famously had to fight to make it a silent film, bringing the full brunt of his considerable prestige against the studio in order to get his way. The kazoo joke makes a show out of what Chaplin’s fans can expect from him, and from his movie: it signals its seriousness by refusing to fully gratify audience expectations, and by simultaneously parodying public rhetoric and the film industry’s obsession with technical sophistication. The “city lights” of the title, which blaze briefly in the striking title sequence, stand for sophistication, urbanity, and modernity—a condition the movies are, by their nature, constantly pursuing, the latest move in that direction being the incorporation of sound. But even as City Lights explores the modern in its subject matter, its style backdates it to a slightly earlier era. (Consider the film’s subtitle, “A Comedy Romance in Pantomime”—self-consciously old-timey already in 1931, already looking backward to old generic designations even as the film determinedly explores modernity.) Just as the Tramp’s moral virtues are all related to the fact that he is out of step, behind the times (a fact even more evident in Chaplin’s next film, Modern Times), so the cinematic virtue of City Lights is in its refusals, its not doing it all, not gratifying every urge, and therefore exhibiting restraint and taste. By sheer virtue of the date of its creation, City Lights makes silence not a feature but a gesture.
Of course, this is all a sentimental fiction, as if movies were ever other than big business, and the modern artistic medium par excellence. And indeed there’s something disingenuous about Chaplin’s method in City Lights. It achieves this tastefulness, in large part, merely by conducting itself as if it were made a few years earlier than it actually was, or as if it cost less than it did. It’s not just a silent but a defiantly dumb film, one which posits an implicit parallel between the way it’s made and what it says, a film which puts much stock in identifying itself with, the poor, sick, weak and blind.
On the level of plot, too, the movie is all about limitations and privations, as you’d expect of a popular comedy directed at an American public that had recently entered into economic depression. Most obviously, there’s Chaplin’s Tramp, a character developed in times of plenty that had made accidental gains in social significance as a result of current economic conditions. In addition, his inamorata in this film is a blind girl who can only regain her sight, it seems, by visiting a “Viennese doctor” (shades of Freud, then at the height of his American notoriety—which leads one to wonder just why and what she can’t see in the first place). To pay for her operation, the Tramp exposes himself to countless humiliations and violations—and this, of course, is the real movie, the series of set pieces and visual gags that many of us are familiar with in isolation. Consider, for instance, the movie’s first routine, which immediately follows the kazoo gag. The Little Tramp is revealed sleeping in the statue’s arms after the unveiling. Waking up and realizing where he is, the Tramp slithers all up and down the statue, trying to escape the crowd’s unwelcome attentions, and finding himself repeatedly penetrated from behind by the statue’s sword. Here as elsewhere in Chaplin’s oeuvre, the Tramp is a clown but also a kind of martyr, a symbol of the little man’s degradation by the public—he’s getting fucked, you see, by “PEACE AND PLENTY,” as the crowd of capitalists watch and do nothing. But he’s also making quite a show of it, isn’t he? You get the sense he might like being the center of all this attention.
This is practically Chaplin’s signature: we watch the Tramp get thoroughly humiliated, but on his own terms, and this paradoxically ennobles him; somehow his failure and pain are converted to success. The same dynamic recurs again in scene after scene in this and all other Chaplin films, these perfectly stage-managed scenes of brutality and discomfort, culminating in the justly famous boxing-match sequence. Chaplin is the most elegant of masochists, and, as with a textbook masochist, he’s always in control: if only because we know – and Chaplin knows we know – that he is in fact the director of the sequence in which he appears. This helps resolve the seeming contradiction between Chaplin’s – the director’s – technical perfectionism and his onscreen character’s bumbling naiveté. Everybody understands that the one produces the other, that without the obsessive choreography demanded by Chaplin that the Tramp would never just happen to fall in and out of trouble so impeccably.
Everybody knows that Charlie Chaplin was a genius, but what was he a genius at? At getting beaten up; at getting thrown (accidentally) into a river; at getting strangled by a boxing ring bell—all of which occur in City Lights. And for making these things happen. Because of his genius for being acted-upon, Chaplin was naturally drawn to a socialist rhetoric, and in City Lights he makes a strong implicit connection between the Tramp’s haplessness and the plight of the little man under modern capitalism. But the equation doesn’t quite work, and the consummate elegance of the film’s execution is exactly why: it is an aesthetic product such as could only have been produced under a modern system of strict hierarchical control and domination. With Chaplin, passivity is a high art; but of course, to fully appreciate this passivity we also have to admire the activity that Chaplin (as director) has set in motion.1 Thus we find the central contradiction of Chaplin’s art: as an actor, he was best at seeming surprised, put-upon, assaulted; but as a director, he demanded total control.
The result of this split is that Chaplin’s elegance tends to vitiate his social commentary. It’s hard to feel pity for the abject tramp, as Chaplin obviously means us to, and contempt for the harsh modern world, when we’re also continually made aware of Chaplin’s mastery of the thoroughly modern art of filmmaking. The contradiction is particularly relevant to City Lights, which is both Chaplin’s first self-conscious masterpiece (again, its very lack of sound signals a Directorial Decision with two capital D’s) and also an oddly tortuous manipulation of his public image. This image needed maintenance in 1931, for sure, as the gulf between his down-and-out alter ego and the public reality of his considerable wealth became more conspicuous than ever. Hence the strangeness of the Tramp being continually misrecognized by an “eccentric millionaire,” a completely mercurial character who is only able to recognize the Tramp as his “friend” when he’s drunk, and who summarily throws him out the morning after. This character makes no sense at all, and that’s the whole point: he stands in for the ineffable whims of all the rich, all those big-shots who create the insane, arbitrary universe in which strivers like the Tramp must scramble. And his surface incoherence serves as a distraction from the contradictions of Chaplin’s own persona.
It’s the presentation of Charlie Chaplin that’s at stake in City Lights, a film that is concerned with nothing if not how – and by whom – its director/star is seen.2 We can see, on screen, what the Tramp is not: not an amoral, id-driven capitalist, but also not one of the dreary, unmemorable proles he works with in the streets or fights in the boxing ring, who share his downtrodden state but lack his elegance and good fortune. One of the most difficult technical problems Chaplin faced on City Lights was working out a way that the blind girl could plausibly mistake him for a millionaire, and in a way he was also trying to solve the opposite problem. For Chaplin’s audience is as blind as his girl, or anyway he hopes it is: she thinks he’s a millionaire when he’s a tramp, we think he’s a tramp when he’s a millionaire. This is a difficult double act to pull off, to say the least, and it may explain something about Chaplin’s obsessive concern with the craft of filmmaking, and with this film in particular. The legendary final scene, in which the Tramp nervously chews on a flower as his beloved lays eyes on him for the first time, is thus a moment of truth, on both sides of the screen. “You can see now?” he asks. “Yes, I can see now,” she answers, implicitly accepting him as he is, as a tramp rather than as a millionaire. And we too are meant to accept him—but as what?
If City Lights’ deliberate old-fashionedness displays a discomfort with movie modernity, then Chaplin’s continued self-presentation as a tramp – albeit one who is also, at times, a millionaire – displays a related discomfort about remaining incredibly wealthy while much of the rest of the country was losing the little it had. One could even say the theme of City Lights is this misrecognition, which everyone involved – actor, director, characters, audience – enter into both knowing and not knowing what it is they are affirming. Though Chaplin was British by birth, his work suggests a basic discomfort with wealth that (still) seems very American, a tendency to both pursue and not really think about it at the same time. And the movies – simultaneously the most expensive and popular art form in human history – are of course the perfect place to think about these matters, or dance around them.
1 Here is one essential difference between Chaplin and his rival Buster Keaton, another director-star, but one who doesn’t insist on any cognitive dissonance – or sly mutual acknowledgment – between his two roles. As many previous critics have observed, Keaton always seems as if he’s trying very hard, while Chaplin is always effortless. ↩
2 The most symptomatic exchange in the film, perhaps, is between the blind girl and her grandmother. The grandmother, having received one of the Tramp’s generous gifts, remarks, “He must be wealthy.” The blind girl answers: “Yes, but he’s more than that.” ↩