Criterion Cuts: “City Lights”

Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.

This week’s choice is something that I’ve kind of been putting off for a long time. I’ve watched plenty of Chaplin movies, but I’ve never quite worked up what I want to say about them and how I can make what I say different because while I adore them I feel most of his movies (especially the later ones that Criterion has) are all thematically very similar. But hell, I like a challenge, and bringing you movies I feel are worth consideration for watching is this whole article’s raison d’être

City Lights (1931)

By the early 30s, Hollywood had embraced sound as the way they were going to tell movies going forward. I feel like that’s the first, biggest, and only piece of historical context you need to appreciate City Lights. But while it’s easy to throw out there, it’s hard to express just how important it was at the time. Charlie Chaplin’s last film, The Circus, had managed to come in three years earlier right as sound was becoming a thing. But the era of the silent movie was over, and with it it’s easy to imagine would go its most enduring icon, Chaplin’s mustachioed fool the Tramp.

So it’s only fitting that City Lights opens with talking. Not actual talking, mind you, but the scenes of a politician and his wife giving a speech before a gathered crowd, their voices little more than kazoo noises. The speeches are for a new statue unveiling, but as the drop cloth falls from the statue it reveals the Tramp nestled in the statue’s arms, sleeping to get out of the cold. As the crowd bursts into indignant chaos, the Tramp tries his best to scamper down the statue only to end up with his pants impaled on a sword the statue is wielding. The Star-Spangled Banner begins playing, and everyone stops shouting to stand at attention as the Tramp struggles to do the same from his perch on the sword.

This is our introduction to silent film’s greatest character in the world of sound. It’s a jab at this new medium, to be sure, but it’s clever and doesn’t feel outright hostile towards sound. Chaplin was scoring his own movies at this point, and City Lights is obviously made by someone who understands what sound can do to augment storytelling, even if he chooses not to utilize its most obvious features. The Tramp is a character that Chaplin always believed (probably rightly) could only work in silent films, a downtrodden mime in the harsh modern world.

The Tramp’s journeys through depression-era America really form the backbone of much of Chaplin’s greatest films about the character. Yes, he’s a buffoon, but at the same time the Tramp is the underdog everyman, a figure who is constantly on the fringes of a society he floats through with an inhuman ease. In the case of City Lights, the Tramp finds himself ridiculed and unwanted by all but two people–a blind flower girl that he falls for and a millionaire drunkard who accepts the Tramp with open arms each night and forgets who he is and boots him out each morning when he sobers up.

The Tramp trying his best to stand at attention for the Star-Spangled Banner.

It’s that sense of barely being noticed that permeates City Lights with a sense of sadness that is as meta-textual as it is a part of the story. Chaplin at this time was struggling with an array of personal problems on top of the possibility that this movie would be completely ignored by a society that had moved on to the next big thing, and that kind of desperate sense of not belonging and the wistfulness with which the film embraces classical Romanticism.

This is a lot of fancy talk for a movie that is decidedly a comedy, but it’s really easy to say that Chaplin movies hit their comedic beats. It’s a lot of slapstick and misdirection, set ups and visual gags that usually revolve around the Tramp’s utter lack of understanding on how to behave in any given situation. It’s a vintage kind of comedy, to be sure, but it contains within it enough nuance and complexity to still play as vibrant and funny as it was back in the day.

This all comes to fruition in one of the major sequences of the film when the Tramp gets fired from a street-cleaning job and needing money to keep his love interest from being evicted signs up for some prize fighting. Which leads to the Tramp, with Chaplin’s slim figure, sitting there with boxing gloves on backwards watching his opponent knock out the guy who knocked out the guy the Tramp was horribly impressed with minutes earlier. The build up is a master work in escalation, beats leading inexorably to a sense of nearly catastrophic glee (or unbearably hilarious dread) as the Tramp gets into the ring.

I highlight this sequence because it’s perhaps the best single bit in all the Chaplin movies I’ve seen. Chaplin, swinging wildly, against a boxer who bounces back like he’s made of rubber every time he gets hit down to his knees. It’s an amazing piece of physical comedy, augmented with a whole lot of great wire work, as both men bounce and dance across the ring, the Tramp trying to keep the ref between them so he won’t get hit, and leaping ineffectually into his opponent over and over. It plays out as something closer to a dance than anything else, characters moving in perfect sync to hit beats that even when they’re expected play out with a sort of zeal that can’t help but cause a smile. It is absolutely the comedic highlight of the film.

The only thing more ridiculous than old-timey boxing is old-timey boxing with the Tramp.

But the thing that sets Chaplin’s movies apart, and the thing I keep returning to, is just how well these silly little movies about a funny little man capture a sort of humanity that is so difficult for films of any era to properly convey. Beyond all the pratfalls and misunderstandings and hijinks, there’s simply the Tramp and the big uncaring world, and this sense that everyone is just a step away from disaster and failure and it’s only through the connections we make and the compassion we feel that we survive as individuals and a species. Perhaps that’s a big concept for a movie like this, but all of his movies seem to have this central driving need to elaborately convey this need for connection and compassion for other human beings.

This is my roundabout way of getting to talking about the ending, which I almost don’t want to touch on but can’t help but mention. I have an unofficial list of movies I feel have ‘perfect endings,’ where not only is everything the plot demands conveyed with particularly notable skill, but the very existence of the ending enriches the rest of the movie that came before. Some entries on my list include The Graduate, Before Sunset, and North by Northwest, and I’m happy to put City Lights among them.

By the end of the movie, the Tramp is more penniless and run down than ever, spending the last of his money to pay for an operation to restore the sight of the blind flower girl, who up until now had thought of him as a mysterious rich suitor. Now, he walks by a shop, taunted by street urchins, the most pitiful wretch one could imagine. But he spots her, now with her sight restored, and breaks into the most heartbreaking smile. The flower girl, the one decent person in the movie, comes out and offers him a flower and some money, and when she touches his hand to hand him the coin realizes who he is. “You can see now?” the Tramp asks, both overjoyed at seeing her and terrified she’s going to reject him. “Yes, I can see now,” the girl answers, still holding his hand as they share a smile and the film fades out.

Comedies with romantic plots that are actually good? Apparently that used to be a thing!

It’s a small, quiet ending to an otherwise pretty boisterous movie, and that’s the real magic of it. There are Chaplin films I like more (he went on to continue holding the torch for silent movies with Modern Times five years later, and that movie is one of my favorite films ever) but none of them I’ve seen so far are so perfectly ended, a note of hope for a movie and a character and a director so plagued with doubts.

In many ways, City Lights reads now as the silent film genre looking for acceptance, and while certainly history and film buffs have offered Chaplin that kind of legacy I would hope that normal film watchers would give it a chance, too. It is, for all its antiquity, as vital a movie as any released today, and with the current resurgence of silent films in conversation with Hugo and The Artist out there, this is one to watch. These movies are fondly remembered with good reason, and I can’t help but recommend that anyone with a love of movies go out and discover why.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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