City Lights is Charles Chaplin’s most perfectly accomplished and balanced work. It would certainly be on the short list of films with which I would care to be stranded on a desert island.
By 1931 the silent cinema was effectively dead. It took considerable courage to lavish two years of rather expensive production on a silent film (and even more courage with Modern Times five years later), but Chaplin felt he had very little choice. He correctly perceived that the Tramp would lose his poetry and grace if he were coerced into the leveling mundanity of human speech. He foresaw that sound would force him to sacrifice the “pace and tempo” he had so laboriously perfected.
Chaplin, like most intellectuals of the period, saw no real advance in the replacement of silent films with those that talked and, even more commonly at the time, squawked. A few directors (Sternberg, Lubitsch, Clair, Hawks, Vidor) had done admirable work in distilling the better qualities of both sound and picture. Ninety-nine percent of what was released while City Lights was in production, however, was ghastly and far below the standards of 1928, the last year silent cinema predominated in America.
City Lights, with its synchronized track, uses sound for Chaplin’s own purposes, poking fun at the talkies and establishing moods through a musical score composed by the director. For the ever-essential purpose of conveying feelings and asserting the primacy of the heart, Chaplin was adamantly eloquent in his wordlessness. As Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and Limelight (1952) were later to prove, he was not at a loss for words, but he believed words themselves were a loss. They were intrinsically cheaper and less emotionally exalting than what Jean Cocteau called “the language of the heart”—the language of mime.
Eventually, the realities of commerce and then age caused Chaplin to make five sound films without the Tramp, but he held out against “progress” for more than a decade and made perhaps his two greatest films sailing against the prevailing winds.
Although the Tramp never changed, inevitably Chaplin did. By the time of City Lights, he was in his forties, and his hair had turned white in the course of his legal disputes with ex-wife Lita Grey. He also perceived that the world was getting uglier around him. The threat to his career posed by sound films and the fact that he felt lonelier than ever can only have added to his perplexity. Somehow, in spite of or because of this, City Lights brought forth from him a lyrical romanticism far more intense than his earlier work. Like all romanticism, it was dependent on a denial of the present, a retreat from reality.
Virginia Cherrill’s blindness provides City Lights with some of its funniest moments, all having the effect of reminding the Tramp of the precariousness of the Romantic ideal in the modern world, but also illustrating his chivalric and stoic gallantry. When they first meet, Charlie slips back to watch the girl while she gets fresh water from a fountain, only to have her unwittingly throw the water in his face. He brings her a bag of groceries and has her feel each item, but he is confounded by the protocol of which end of a duck is appropriate for her to touch. He holds a skein of wool for her to ball, but she mistakenly grabs a loose thread from his long johns, and he writhes in noble discomfort while she painstakingly—and painfully—unravels his underwear.
Ironically, he must destroy the very illusion on which their relationship is based by restoring her sight and revealing himself as the Tramp he really is. It is a risk he must take, made monumental by his experiences with unreliable women in earlier films (and previous real-life marriages). Chaplin could not have been unmindful of the fact that among the consequences of blindness was the inability to experience that which had become the center of his life, the medium through which he felt most fully alive: the motion picture. By providing the girl with the capacity to see, he was metaphorically giving her the most precious of personal gifts—himself. Perhaps he sensed it was safer to relate through the platonic and vicarious substance of celluloid; however unstable and combustible its chemistry, it is still more dependable than the unreliable passions of the flesh.
So the risk is taken, and the girl can now see that her chevalier is a bum. Their reunion is profoundly austere and awesomely moving in its ambivalence. We will never know if the girl can see beyond her sight and beyond Charlie’s wrinkled smile, timidly hidden behind a rose. What I think we do know is that final scene of City Lights is, in James Agee’s words, “the highest moment in the movies.”