Charlie Chaplin at SIFF – City Lights
There was a time, not too long ago, when Charlie Chaplin was seen as the most famous man on earth. His films transcended borders, languages, and cultural barriers. Everyone knew who he was; his image held firmly in the minds of movie audiences around the world. He wrote, directed, acted, and scored his films; they were the ultimate illustrations of his sensibilities. The Tramp, one of the great, most lovable underdogs of the movies, was a character that everyone knew once they saw him. Even for people who have never seen any of his films, they somehow recognize the bowl hat, the large floppy shoes, the cane, the bowtie, and, of course, the mustache. Chaplin has ingrained himself in the public conscience like second nature, perhaps for all time. Of all the masterpieces he made, of all the memorable moments and fantastic comedic touches that inhabit his movies, City Lights (1931), to me, has remained the most perfect showcase of his brilliance, an even balance of hilarity and emotion, of laughter and tears. It is one of the great achievements of the silent era.
Sound was alive and well by the time that this film was released, and Chaplin must have realized that eventually he would have to make the transition to the talkies. But The Tramp never lived in a world of sound or dialogue, and he never had to. One of Chaplin’s great gifts was his ability to pantomime, to express a feeling or give us information through the use of body language. He spoke to his other characters through movement, and despite sometimes looking like he was speaking, we already knew what he was trying to say. This is what made him (and silent films in general) so universal; they never had to rely on language to tell their stories, and as a result, they were able to reach out to a broader audience. People never had to read subtitles while characters were on screen (of course, title cards would have to be translated). They would sit back and enjoy the performances of the actors, become fully engaged with what they were seeing, become a part of the film entirely through the visual.
And what a pleasure it is to watch this film; to see The Tramp get into his many adventures and predicaments within the city is just a joy to experience. The film contains arguably his best introduction. In front of a large group of people, a curtain is lifted to reveal him sleeping in the arms of a large statue. One of the many funny moments is when the local politicians yell for him to come down from it, with their voices dubbed with weird and odd noises, a nice little jab regarding Chaplin’s thoughts on the talkies. The moment only escalates as The Tramp attempts to slide down the statute, only to have the bottom of his pants catch on the statue’s sword. Watch as he very awkwardly tries to gain a foothold when The Star Spangled Banner begins to play, or when he very subtly positions himself in way that makes it looks like he’s mocking the crowd. Such a great opening scene, there are so many things to notice in this one part but all of it flows together easily. In less than five minutes, Chaplin has already established a precedent that will run throughout the rest of the movie.
Timing is everything here; the success of the film depends entirely on how well Chaplin is able to convey what he wants, and how perfectly put together the sequences are. There is not a moment that is wasted; everything that we see is done for a purpose, and to achieve a certain affect. If there was a slight delay in timing, a slight moment of hesitation, the particular sequence’s influence would be ruined. Take for example the very next scene following the opening, as Chaplin window shops on the street. He looks inside of a storefront at a model, and moves back and forth in contemplation, all while a platform descends and ascends directly behind. Watch how he barely touches the edge of the platform, just inches away from falling in, and just as he sticks his foot out behind him, the platform rises just in the nick of time. Chaplin never once looks back; he depends solely on the timing of the people controlling the platform. Obviously if the timing were off things could have been bad for him. The scene is punctuated with comedy as a man rises out of the street, at first low enough for The Tramp to talk down to him, and then all the way up to reveal a man nearly two times bigger.
There are two stories that run parallel in the film. The first, and most touching, is the relationship between The Tramp and the Blind Girl (Virginia Cherrill). It was an interesting choice for Chaplin to make the female lead blind, but through that choice we were able to see how the two fall for each other for who they are instead of what they look like. The Blind Girl, through a moment of misunderstanding while selling him flowers, comes to believe that The Tramp is a rich man. In turn, The Tramp, wanting to do good for this person and afraid of what she might think if she were to find out that he was actually a poor person from the street, does what he can to support her and make her happy. This is where the true emotion of the film comes into play; the combination of The Tramp’s love for the Blind Girl and his own insecurity for being poor contribute to scenes of pure inspiration. We see The Tramp, learning of the Blind Girl’s need to pay her rent and the existence of a procedure that could cure her blindness, take a number of odd jobs to raise money for her. These include occupations like being a street sweeper, and even a one-time boxer. The Tramp’s efforts showcase his good heart, and it’s touching to see how far he’s willing to go for the Blind Girl’s well being.