When he made it, three years into the era of sound, Chaplin must have known that “City Lights” might be his last silent film; he considered making a talkie, but decided against it, and although the film has a full musical score (composed by Chaplin) and sound effects, it has no speech. Audiences at the time would have appreciated his opening in-joke; the film begins with political speeches, but what emerges from the mouths of the speakers are unintelligible squawks, Chaplin’s dig at dialogue. When he made “Modern Times” five years later, Chaplin allowed speech onto the soundtrack, but once again the Tramp remained silent except for some gibberish.
There was perfect logic here: Speech was not how the Tramp really expressed himself. In most silent films there’s the illusion that the characters are speaking, even though we can’t hear them. Buster Keaton’s characters, for example, are clearly talkative.
But the Tramp is more of a mime, a person for whom body language serves as speech. He exists somehow on a different plane than the other characters; he stands outside their lives and realities, is judged on his appearance, is homeless and without true friends or family, and interacts with the world mostly through his actions. Although he can sometimes be seen to speak, he doesn’t need to; unlike most of the characters in silent films, he could have existed comfortably in a silent world.
In “Modern Times,” as Walter Kerr points out in his invaluable book The Silent Clowns, the Tramp is constantly trying to get back into jail, where he feels safe and secure. His most frequent refuge is a paddy wagon. In “City Lights,” his only friendships are with people who don’t or can’t see him: with a drunken millionaire who doesn’t recognize him when he sobers up, and with a blind flower girl. His shabby appearance sets him apart and cues people to avoid and stereotype him; a tramp is not ... one of us. Unlike the Keaton characters, who have jobs and participate eagerly in society, the Tramp is an outcast, an onlooker, a loner.
Chaplin and the other silent filmmakers knew no national boundaries. Their films went everywhere without regard for language, and talkies were like the Tower of Babel, building walls between nations. I witnessed the universality of Chaplin’s art in one of my most treasured experiences as a moviegoer, in 1972, in Venice, where all of Chaplin’s films were shown at the film festival.
One night the Piazza San Marco was darkened, and “City Lights” was shown on a vast screen. When the flower girl recognized the Tramp, I heard much snuffling and blowing of noses around me; there wasn’t a dry eye in the piazza. Then complete darkness fell, and a spotlight singled out a balcony overlooking the square. Charlie Chaplin walked forward, and bowed. I have seldom heard such cheering.
He had by then for many decades been hailed as one of the screen’s great creators. In “City Lights” we can see the invention and humanity that coexist in his films.
The movie contains some of Chaplin’s great comic sequences, including the famous prize fight in which the Tramp uses his nimble footwork to always keep the referee between himself and his opponent. There’s the opening scene, where a statue is unveiled to find the Tramp asleep in the lap of a heroic Greco-Roman stone figure. Trying to climb down, he gets his pants hooked through the statue’s sword, and tries to stand at attention during “The Star-Spangled Banner” although his feet can’t find a footing. There’s the sequence where he tries to save the millionaire from drowning, and ends up with the rock tied to his own neck; the scene where he swallows a whistle and gathers a following of dogs; the scene where the millionaire and the Tramp encounter burglars; the scene in the nightclub where Charlie sees Apache dancers and defends the woman dancer against her partner.
And there are the bawdy moments, as when the Tramp, working as a street sweeper, avoids a parade of horses only to encounter a parade of elephants; and when the millionaire pours bottles of champagne down the Tramp’s pants.
In “City Lights,” his only friendships are with people who don’t or can’t see him: with a drunken millionaire who doesn’t recognize him when he sobers up, and with a blind flower girl.
Until tomorrow: Courage is grace under pressure.