Wednesday, October 03, 2012

CGAA Cinema: City Lights (Directed by Charlie Chaplin, 1931)

This post is the beginning of a series of regular showcases of the best silent films you probably won’t be watching on any of the current CGAA film series and lectures. Later on in the year I’d like to establish a non-CG Arts specific film programme (which will include all types of films) and gauge interest for that a bit later on. For the time being, I’m not making too much of an attempt to set an overarching theme to this series of posts, it will be more of a ‘Tom Recommends’ list of personal favourites without any distinct criteria. Other than the fact they’re bloody brilliant and you should go and watch them right away. After all, that’s what students at an art university should be doing! These posts are written uniquely for the course blog, and I'm open to any suggestions about future films and any feedback you may have! Ideally, I'd like to upload the post and the following day have the film running in the background in the CG Baseroom. Anyone else is also free to join in on some silent film showcase fun!

'City Lights' Opening Title
In a way, I’m working backwards as the first film up is Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 City Light - one of the last successful silent films released in America as the age of the ‘talkie’ began to establish itself in the expectations of the movie going public. Chaplin would be one of the few great silent film stars to successfully continue his career and develop his style for the new challenges posed by the sound era, but the still silent City Lights is often thought of as one of his great achievements. The penultimate outing of The Little Tramp - Chaplin’s iconic antihero - is an impressively constructed masterpiece, that makes full use of silent film as an aesthetic to combine the melodramatic weight of the plot, characters and comedic moments into what he called ‘A comedy romance in pantomime’. It’s hard to say much ‘new’ about City Lights. 80 years of existence has witnessed the cineaste bludgeon it’s often heartfelt message to death already, but I’ll present an overview of key themes and my own observation of why I think the film is a particularly clever piece of narrative storytelling.

Like in many of his films before, Chaplin uses the Tramp to present a satirical, comedic allegory of his perceived shortfalls of modern life and politics, or as a vaguely self-mocking autobiographical account of his life and career. City Lights is both of these, with the context transported into the glamour of the American jazz-age, as Malland observes "Chaplin turned his attention to what he saw as a disturbing quality of life in prosperous urban America. Although it is not apparently set in the depression. City Lights might fruitfully be paired with F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story, "Babylon Revisted." for both these 1931 works directly or obliquely take a searching look at the glittering way of life of wealthy Americans in the Jazz Age and find it lacking." (Malland, 1991:117)  The bright lights of the modern-age coincided under the backdrop of the hardships of The Great Depression, allowing Chaplin to use City Lights as an explorative critique of  superficial relationships which he felt had come to define capitalist, modern society. The plot is simple, but presented in fragments - slices of a film ‘moments’ which build up an overall narrative, and help Chaplin to establish relationships between his characters in disparate instances. provides a brief plot synopsis:

“Once again cast as the Little Tramp, Chaplin makes the acquaintance of a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill), who through a series of coincidences has gotten the impression that the shabby tramp is a millionaire. A second storyline begins when the tramp rescues a genuine millionaire (Harry Myers) from committing suicide. When drunk, the millionaire expansively treats the tramp as a friend and equal; when sober, he doesn't even recognize him. The two plots come together when the tramp attempts to raise enough money for the blind girl to have an eye operation.” ( 2012)

'Peace and Prosperity' Introducing The Tramp
The Tramp and The Flower Girl
The film presents two differing situations of modern American class. The fortunes of the rich and poor. The Tramp - or Chaplin - as always represents the anti-establishment, but non-political vagabond caught between the two. In City Lights we see an ever-present narrative symbolism which runs throughout most of Chaplin’s films, as Dimare notes “City Lights addresses several themes typical of Chaplin’s Tramp films – the flaws endemic in the world of luxury, the struggle of the alienated individual in urban America, the moral superiority of the working poor...” (Dimare 2011:97) . His left-leaning stance on social equality is rarely disguised. The two classes are represented through the Flower Girl and the Millionaire. The rich are displayed as increasingly materialistic, lacking true happiness and indulging in superficial friendships which last a single, drunken evening. The Tramp and the Millionaire engage in a number of bawdy activities in the company of other wealthy socialites, but neither find true happiness indulging in this decadence. A strong resemblance to Chaplin’s ongoing personal struggles can be found in the fortunes of the Millionaire, whose misery reflects Chaplin at some of the lowest points in his life. In the Flower Girl, despite her lack of wealth and illness, the Tramp finds the wholesome values, close bonds and caring family which Chaplin desired to find for himself.
The Millionaire
The boxing match
The film ebbs and flows between two contrasting types of narrative. A rhythmic energy develops as the film jumps from slapstick comedy to a light romantic drama. The interactions between the Millionaire and the Tramp and his attempts to earn money for the Flower Girl form the comedic moments of the film. These are as funny and delightfully choreographed as Chaplin ever produced. It’s in the melodramatic moments, where Chaplin carefully sets up the romantic relationship between the Tramp and the Flower Girl to evoke an emotional connection in the audience where City Lights hits a stride perhaps unlike any of his previous films.

City Lights style and execution of narrative needs to be viewed in the context of the time of it's release. The film sits in a transitional state between silent and sound films, requiring Chaplin to use his years of experience as a silent filmmaker to meld a film which was acceptable to audiences in the new age of sound. There are instances of synchronised sound to be found throughout the film. It is used for comedic effect in the kazoo whining dignitaries in the opening scene, or  it can be heard in the soundtrack, where music is often used as a way to establish the rhythm and pace of action. Relatively advanced techniques for a silent film. These instances aside, without sound the film has to achieve it's symbolic meaning and emphasis on character development without an over-reliance on intertitle-driven dialogue. Chaplin plays out the story primarily through the use of character actions, and their relationship to the environment. He establishes this method in the opening scene, as Flom argues “As with his earlier work at essanay and Mutual, where the Tramp often found himself placed in different environment or employment situations, he used a similar approach in City Lights. Oftentimes, scenes tend to comprise a collection of ideas and concepts that related to character development. For instance, Chaplin’s opening sequence, with the statue unveiling and some comic business featuring a nude statue in a storefront window, helps depict Charlie’s life on the streets, and establishes the Tramp as a wanderer in the this cinematic city.” (Flom 1997:63) .   Narrative is broken down into essential visual forms. Characters personalities and backgrounds are established through nuanced use of situation. The Millionaire finds himself trying to commit suicide in a dark corner of town, while the Flower Girl struggles to make a living in the heart of the city. Our empathic relationship to their encounters with the wandering Tramp, who in this film exists within both spaces, are born by our visual understanding of their place in society, and the way they function within the city. City Lights uses silent film as an aesthetic, a medium to tell a story of relationships and build up audience empathy through cinematic devices which would seem unnatural through the use of sound and dialogue.

The final scene
Despite its 'primitivism' or indeed because of it, the film's reception at time of release was overwhelmingly positive. Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times wrote: “Charlie Chaplin, master of screen mirth and pathos, presented at the George M. Cohan last night before a brilliant gathering his long-awaited non-dialogue picture, "City Lights," and proved so far as he is concerned the eloquence of silence. Many of the spectators either rocking in their seats with mirth, mumbling as their sides ached, "Oh, dear, oh, dear," or they were stilled with sighs and furtive tears. And during a closing episode, when the Little Tramp sees through the window of a flower shop the girl who has recovered her sight through his persistence, one woman could not restrain a cry."  (Hall 1931) What more can be said about the final scene.  In the silence of cinema, the Tramp – and Chaplin - find true happiness.


Malland, C (1991) Chapin and American Culture: The Evolution of Star Image (Reprint Ed.) United States: Princeton University Press

Dimare, P (2011) Movies in American History: An Encylcopedia United States: ABC CLIO

Flom, E (1997) Chaplin in the Sound Era: An Analysis of the Seven Talkies United States:McFarland and Company (2012) City Lights Plot Summary and Details At: (Accessed on 03.10.2012)

Hall, M (1931) The New York Times: City Lights Review At: (Accessed on 03.10.2012)

1 comment:

  1. An interesting read Tom - I'm looking forward to seeing movies playing in the studio :)