Review of The Criterion Collection dual-format edition. City Lights d. Charles Chaplin (1931) Spine: #680 Blu-ray Release Date: November 12, 2012 Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc, but resolution has been reduced from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed. You may click on them to view the 900x506 image.
After The Gold Rush, which we looked at here last week, Chaplin released The Circus in 1928. Again, since I’m focused on the Chaplin films released on home video by Flicker Alley and The Criterion Collection, and The Circus has yet to show up (but it is available on Criterion’s Hulu channel), I’ll be skipping it for now and moving straight to my favorite: 1931’s City Lights.
It never fails: every time I sit down to watch City Lights I wonder how on earth it could be my favorite. I don’t think it’s as funny as The Gold Rush. I don’t think its set pieces are as impressive as those in Modern Times. Indeed, the plot of City Lights, if we reduce it to words, looks incredibly sentimental: the Tramp encounters a blind, destitute woman selling flowers (Virginia Cherrill) who mistakes him for a wealthy man. The Tramp, for his part, is friends with a millionaire (Harry Myers) . . . but only when that millionaire is drunk; sober, the wretched man wants nothing to do with the Tramp. The Tramp, never duplicitous, intends to use his friendship with the millionaire to help the blind woman, but this leads to a great deal of trouble.
But I think it’s the peak mostly because of the final segment. The Tramp has been down and out and lonely in other films, but in them he mostly retains a degree of hope. In City Lights, though, Chaplin allows even the Tramp, at the end, to look depressed and hopeless. It’s the worst he’ll ever look — even his already holy clothes are more raggedy. This person, who has sacrificed all he had to help someone else, looks capable of ending everything. The movie doesn’t end there, of course, but neither does it get to its redemptive, beautiful ending easily: it’s masterful. James Agee, in 1949, said that the final scene is the “greatest single piece of acting ever committed to celluloid.”
But let’s step back a bit and see just how we get the Tramp into such depths. He certainly doesn’t start the film well. He’s homeless, in City Lights, and the film begins with the city unveiling a new statue. When they pull off the cover, who’s there, sleeping in the arms of the figure? The Tramp. After a fun scene, in which the officials show little patience, the Tramp wanders the streets. That’s when he meets the blind Flower Girl, who mistakes him for a wealthy man. The Tramp, not wanting to dispel the illusion, which probably makes each of them feel good, simply slips away.
Later that evening, he comes upon a drunken millionaire, about to drown himself. The darkness the creeps up within the comedy of this film is striking. The Tramp, who has nothing material to live for, still manages to convince the millionaire to live, and they become friends . . . at least, when the millionaire is drunk. In the morning, the millionaire does not remember and wants nothing to do with this wretched creature he keeps finding in his home.
I’m not going to go much further into the plot and set pieces, but suffice it to say here that the tenuous friendship the Tramp has with the millionaire eventually lead the Tramp to jail. This is not jail that we see in Modern Times, where the Tramp is in no hurry to leave and go back to the streets. Indeed, we never see the jail in City Lights. Rather, we see the aftermath. The Tramp has lost all dignity. Again, since he didn’t have material wealth to bolster his dignity in the first place, it’s Chaplin’s demeanor: any dignity has drained from composure. It’s clear from the earliest shorts that Chaplin was a physical performer, and he seems to just get better a blocking his movement, but it was only in City Lights that I saw just how powerfully he uses his body to grant his impoverished character poise and self-respect. Again, it’s because in this scene, it’s gone.
In this state, he runs into the blind Flower Girl again. She’s been cured, thanks to the Tramp, and she seems to be doing well for herself as she now has a flower shop. She’s looking for the man who saved her, the man she assumes is wealthy. It’s a devastating moment when even she sees the Tramp and looks down on him, not cruelly, but with a little humor and more than a little sense of condescension. Still, she decides to be kind to him, and that’s when it strikes her: this is the man who saved her. The Tramp looks at her shyly, embarrassed, but the softness returns — he is delighted to see that she is doing well. It cost him almost everything he had to get her there.
That’s where the film ends. Her eyes are opened for the second time. We don’t know what’s going to happen to either character, but they’ve both been visited by grace.