City Lights, which is widely considered to be, not only one of the greatest silent films ever made, but one of the greatest films ever made, is all that and more. As Portland State University instructor Dennis Grunes points, out Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece is “the seminal American movie of the Great Depression.” Then why did it leave me feeling so cold?
I suppose that is at least partly the film’s intention. Unlike many Depression era movies, City Lights has neither a happy ending, nor a cathartic, tragic ending. For eighty six out of its eighty seven minutes, Chaplain weaves an enchanting fantasy of a homeless man who finds true love with a blind flower girl only to bring us back down to reality before the final credits. Chaplain, a genuine artist as well as a gifted entertainer, won’t let us carry the illusion out of the theater.
You might miss it if you’re not paying attention.
City Lights opens with the mayor of the city dedicating a statue to “Peace and Prosperity.” Even though City Lights is a silent film, Chaplain couldn’t resist adding the voices of the politicians to the movie’s soundtrack. They sound like the teacher from the Charlie Brown comics, pompous fools babbling nonsense that has little or not relevance to the genuinely disadvantaged, “Little Tramp,” who’s revealed to have fallen asleep in the statue’s lap after they raise the curtain. After being chased by the police away from peace and prosperity the Little Tramp then meets the woman of his dreams, a blind flower girl played by Virginia Cherrill. In real life, Cherrill and Chaplain couldn’t stand each other, and he came close to firing her. It’s a good thing for City Lights he didn’t. Cherrill is a luminous presence, a worthy “object” of the little tramp’s devoted adoration who betrays little or no sign of her personal dislike for Chaplain himself. After he meets the flower girl, suddenly finding a reason to live in spite of his poverty, the Little Tramp meets a man who has every reason to live, a millionaire played by Harry Myers, but who, for a a variety of frivolous excuses, wants to die. The Little Tramp, inspired by his infatuation for the blind flower girl, saves the millionaire’s life. To be more accurate, he tricks the millionaire into saving his life, accidentally falling into the river where the man had planned to drown himself. A friendship, which, as Grunes points out, accurately reflects the attitude of the Depression Era bourgeoisie to the poor, begins to develop. The millionaire takes the Little Tramp home, gives him dinner and a change of clothes, accidentally pours wine down his pants, and introduces him to the Butler, who, like most devoted servants of the rich, dislike the poor more than the rich do themselves.
Soon it becomes clear that the millionaire is a kind, generous man when he’s drunk, and a bit of an asshole when he’s sober. Meanwhile, the blind flower girl, who lives with her mother in a tiny apartment, is in danger of joining The Little Tramp in among the ranks of the city’s homeless. After she asks him to read her the eviction notice pasted to their door, The Tramp is determined to get the money to pay the rent. First he gets a job as a street sweeper, but gets fired for being late one too many times. Then he agrees to go into the ring with a professional prizefighter, take a dive, and split the purse. The prizefighter, however, has to leave town – he’s wanted by the law – and the Tramp finds himself in the ring with a hastily chosen replacement, who knows nothing about the Tramp’s agreement to throw the fight. The Tramp, a surprisingly tricky fighter, does his best, but in the end loses, and comes away empty handed. All however, is not lost, at least for the flower girl. The Tramp not only discovers a revolutionary new surgery that promises to restore her sight. He persuades his friend the alcoholic millionaire, who has returned from an extended trip to Europe, to pay the back rent and bankroll the operation. After a series of mishaps – the millionaire produces the cash but gets robbed and the Tramp ends up in jail, false accused of a crime he didn’t commit – the blind girl undergoes the surgery, gets her sight back, and ends up as the owner of a prosperous flower shop.
The flower girl’s miraculous cure, however, is the end of the Tramp’s beautiful dream. Up until she gets her sight back, Virginia Cherrill’s flower girl is a beautiful object with, perhaps, a rich inner life, but not an active subject with hopes and dreams of her own. Her disability gone, her own desires, which do not include marrying an ugly little homeless man, come to the surface. The Tramp, she has convinced herself, is a handsome young millionaire. There’s really no sadder moment in cinema – at least for men who aren’t handsome young millionaires – then the way her eyes light up at the sight of a tall, well-dressed young man she mistakenly thinks her benefactor and her disappointment when she finally meets The Tramp, her real benefactor. She’s kind to the poor little man – she gives him money and a flower – but it’s clear she doesn’t love him, at least not in the adoring, romantic way he loves her. Nothing, of course, can force romantic love, which is not kindness, respect, gratitude, nostalgia, or admiration, but an irrational selfish desire no one can really control. Some men inspire romantic love in women. Others do not.
Charlie Chaplin rises above the level of talented showman to become a genuine artist when he realizes that he can so clearly express what he will never experience himself.