The bonus material insert of the Criterion Release that I used to revisit City Lights in preparation for today’s 85th Anniversary includes a piece published in Life magazine in 1967. The article curates segments of a series of Charlie Chaplin interviews conducted by journalist Richard Merryman. Within that quilted monologue, Chaplin is candid about his own filmmaking philosophies and how they are at odds with the filmmaking standard of that current moment, decades after his own filmmaking peak. After a specifically pointed criticism of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Chaplin explains, “If we put life under the microscope, it is a very horrifying and frightening thing. So we enter a romance… Life without romance—well, you might as well be in a prison or a slug under the earth.”
Incidentally, the first film class discussion in which I ever gathered enough courage to participate was about just this topic: Chaplin’s romanticism in City Lights. What started as the instructor’s question about whether the stirring conclusion of the film was earned by even-handed emotional honesty or a more strained and generic sentimentality devolved into my (perhaps overzealously) attempting to correct a much more commonly vocal pocket of the class who insisted it to be the latter. I had never seen City Lights before I watched it with this class. I had never sat through an entire non-talkie. My defensive fervor was almost wholly motivated by the fact that the film had unexpectedly worked on me, left me breathless and teary eyed with its final sequence. Where those misguided students (yes, they were wrong) saw “a tacked-on happy ending” (God, so wrong), I at least recognized it as a powerful punctuation to the film’s embedded thematic richness. I likely didn’t articulate it to any effective degree then, but I was immediately transfixed by Chaplin’s literally and figuratively blind character misconceptions and the personal desperation and interpersonal hopelessness created by his class-based status systems.
If we view the vulnerability of The Tramp’s grinning nail-bite as a conclusive note to all of these deeply sewn thematic threads (and Chaplin gives us every reason to view it that way when he employs the film’s tightest close-up shots to his characters’ faces in this scene), then his final film moments and first appearance into the Flower Girl’s restored line of vision mark an ending that is anything but happy. His deceitful nurturing of her misunderstanding is surrendered here. Remember, he has earned her affection only by opportunistically crafting the illusion of his inclusion within a more wealthy class. And his grandest gesture to her is immediately revealed to be the climax of the scam that permitted their fleeting moment of mutually hopeful courtship. And yet, because of the purity of his affection, his gratitude is measurable for having provided her both the sense of sight and an opportunity to exist as a successful merchant on the social hierarchy that has always served as their inhibitor, and now more so than ever. The reward is also the ruin, and vice versa.
I might have been shocked then to learn that my evaluation of City Lights’ complicated emotional structure would have barely survived Chaplin’s own philosophy on cinematic and narrative aesthetic. From the Life interview mentioned earlier, Chaplin states: “I have faith that the people want simplicity. The world is so complicated: so many invasions of people’s souls… Complexity isn’t truth. We get things so cluttered up, get so damn clever that it hides the simple truth in a situation. You have to watch every second.”
Chaplin’s faith-based simplicity principle becomes even harder to accommodate with a more informed understanding of his film once one knows City Lights’ placement in the Chaplin canon, the film’s standing as his crowning passion project after two decades of his earning and keeping status as the world’s most celebrated comedian and recognizable face. At the time of City Lights’ release, the world was reeling in the aftermath of the first World War, in the middle of a stock market crash and depression, and creeping toward a second, more violent and imperative World War. The turmoil and fear of that reality and, retrospectively, that pocket of history, made for an uncomfortable host to art like this. All of the fear and weariness might welcome the relief of Chaplinesque slapstick while simultaneously rejecting the bare and simple humanity of the Chaplinesque pathos.
In the same historical moment, Chaplin was also being marooned by the evolution of the filmic form and the enhancement of its technology. By the time production had begun on City Lights in 1929, sound had been largely incorporated into the major motion picture, particularly in those of Hollywood studios. It is hard to consider Chaplin’s decision to carry on with City Lights with no intention to incorporate the spoken word to be one of blind commitment or naïve idealism. Given that sound (but not words) played a prominent role in two of the film’s prominent gags (the empty horn-blow of the politician’s opening speech and the swallowed whistle leading to a bout of hiccups), the movie’s full musical score, and the moments in which sound is implied as a plot mover (when the Flower Girl mistakenly assumes The Tramp is driving a car that she hears pull up nearby), it seemed that Chaplin was conceding the inevitability of silent cinema’s replacement in this his symbolic refusal of that next step.
Five years after City Lights, The Tramp showed up again in Modern Times, another stubborn wordless classic, and later again in the less impressive Gold Rush. In 1940, Chaplin offered up the mostly wordless The Great Dictator, finishing that film with a monologue that showcased his voice’s lack of cinematic power and his message’s preachy incompatibility with the talkie form. By any practical measure, City Lights was Chaplin’s (and The Tramp’s) last great film. And it was also the most Chaplin film Chaplin ever made.
Beyond composing of the film’s music and spending so much of his own fortune on the project, Chaplin, according to everything written about the film since, was obsessive in his takes and retakes, replaced actor Henry Clive with Harry Myers, and then even threatened to replace his co-star Virginia Cherril after filming had started, going so far as screen testing Georgia Hale before changing his mind. But it was even more than that. The work now stands as Chaplin’s most emboldened articulation of the humanity of his little hero and his commitment to his own singular style of graceful slapstick. City Lights contains both the most heartfelt moment (the aforementioned final scene) and, in my mind, the most engaging comedic routine (the prize fight sequence) of his entire filmography. If Chaplin’s aforementioned manipulation of sound is evidence that the artist had accepted his form’s eventual demise, then every other element of the same film suggested he was determined to present the height of that form’s potential. And that he did.
In the same subsequent decades that saw the silent film go by the wayside, the wave of global socio-political instability pushed a strange post-war culture shift in America, one which lead to a not-so-warm public re-evaluation of Chaplin’s passively presented film politics. Peripheral to that unofficial trial, Chaplin also fell out of public favor because of his rumored and revealed relationships with and interest in young women. Though he had once taken great care to cleanly segment his public-facing self into a fictional character, by the middle of the century, Charlie Chaplin was a physical manifestation of his own prophetically symbolic imagery, a fallen icon hanging by his britches from a gaudy statue of commemoration, on display to the embitterment and amusement of everyone at Town Square.
Recently, I watched the finale of the second season of the television program Fargo on F/X. In that episode, Sheriff Hank Larsson (played by Ted Danson) explains in a moment of familiar vulnerability that he has taken as a hobby the development of a new language, a simpler set of universally recognized characters. Most of the world’s conflicts, Larson explains, are the product of simple miscommunication. This scene is as profound as any committed to any sort of screen, not for the content of Larson’s explanation but for the implied compassion, fear, regret, and shame that might lead that character to have such a benevolent wish. The wish for a simpler, more compassionate language. Likely because I was at the same time planning this very essay, my mind immediately returned to Chaplin. I remembered Chaplin having stated in that aforementioned interview that we “get things so cluttered up.” I thought about what he meant by that, and specifically, I remembered how in the same interview he lamented over his impoverished childhood when he would walk in the streets with his mother, “who was insane, and so weak, staggering from one side to the other as though she were drunk. Those sorts of things.” I thought of all of the artistic machinations and cognitive gears that had to be built to filter that memory, perhaps, into his own cane-supported hobbling ballet, the trademark gait of The Tramp maybe a simpler truth of a complex story.
But the unique combination of permanency and clarity in the film medium establishes cinema—artistic, fictional, or otherwise—as a living historical text documenting both the future and the past. All of the previously discussed truths are today packed into the complex conclusion of City Lights, even if the truths had yet to be born at the time of the movie’s creation and release. From the deconstructed and tainted legacy, to the eventual functional extinction of its cinematic form, to my own adamant interpretative defense in a state university classroom a lifetime later. All of these influences now injure Chaplin’s hope to create a simple language.
Because if a simpler truth is constructed in counter to a more prominent and unpleasant complexity, then the unpleasant complexity is also intrinsically part of that simple truth, which is now no longer simple through the addendum. That’s why, today, when we watch Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights to its final shot, we see a close-up on a single face shared by countless figures, each having had mostly good intentions, having done mostly the right thing, and each realizing his noble failure while sympathetically accepting a compromised reward. We see a single expression of self-consciousness, one pair of hopeful eyes attempting to discover if it was all enough, if he made both the young lady and his once-adoring audience happy enough with what he had to work with. He is a criminal, a clown, and a tramp whose hopeless status and selfless heart has exposed him as human, an artist whose perfected but fading medium has exposed him as human, and a once polished icon planted in the middle of a shifting political culture that has since exposed him as human. And being human is never simple, but being that human is immortal.
Featured Image: United Artists