As a fan of cinema, the exploration of early films and the works of early stars like Chaplin are instructive. Seeing familiar jokes and gags done in perhaps their original form enhances my appreciation for later films, and it shows the influence of these works. City Lights is no exception.
Sights and Sounds
Many funny scenes depend on the camera angle for maximum effect. The scene early in the film with the sidewalk elevator narrowly missing the Tramp several times as he examines a piece of “artwork” is a good early example of this. The shot, which shows the Tramp almost stepping into the hole several times while not noticing, is shot from in front of the Tramp, letting the audience in on the secret while showing that he has no idea what’s going on.
The fact that Chaplin scored this film, as well as write, direct, and act in, shows that he was very talented in different ways. It also shows a bit of a control freak at work. It seems that he had such a particular idea about what the film needed to look and sound like, that he could only rely on his own talents to put it together correctly. The result seems to have been remembered fairly as a work of genius, but it could have easily been a disaster with only one creative force making all the decisions.
There are tons of brilliant physical jokes found in this film. The sequence at the very beginning with the statue unveiling shows the immense comic talent of Chaplin the performer, especially the part where his trousers are caught on the sword and the National Anthem starts playing, and he has to scramble to keep from losing his footing, struggling in a very funny way. There are many gags that I’ve seen before in later works, such as in the scene by the water where the Millionaire is trying to help the Tramp out of the water and inadvertently pulls him in. That scene showcases the comic timing that Chaplin and his costar had; it’s amazing to see how well executed the sequence is, much of it on one take. Perhaps the most amazing scene in terms of slapstick comedy is to be found at the restaurant/ club when the Tramp and the Millionaire go out, both visibly inebriated. Chaplin’s slippery staggering across the dance floor, ending at the table, is nothing short of spectacular in terms of choreography and execution. Scenes like this showcase Chaplin’s meticulous attention to detail, and the result is riveting. One director told me that the most fascinating thing to watch is precision. Chaplin and his costars show this in many scenes, but the restaurant/ club sequence really shines as a work of many parts moving with incredible precision.
My favorite joke of the whole movie is when the Tramp is driving around in the Millionaire’s car, looking for a smoke, and he sees a rich man toss a butt on the sidewalk and pulls over, only to meet another tramp trying to pick it up, whom he shoves away to take the smoke for himself. The joke worked on many levels: first there’s the physical, slapstick humor of pushing a guy out of the way to pick up a cigar. From the perspective of each character, there’s another layer of humor. The Tramp desperately wants a smoke and is willing to do anything to get it. He carefully follows the rich man until he drops the cigar on the sidewalk. How dare that other homeless fellow try to grab what he’s earned? Consider it from the perspective of that other homeless fellow; he’s just bumming along, sees a good sized butt discarded on the sidewalk, and figures this must be my lucky day, only to be shoved away rudely by a guy in a tuxedo and a nice car! How does he dare? This is an intricate piece of social commentary that has deeper meaning given Chaplin’s origins as a poor person.
The Characters and Their Meaning
The Millionaire seems to have serious issues that are dealt with somewhat lightly; the first time we see him, he’s about to kill himself. He also has what may be called “drunken recall” as he only seems to recognize the Tramp when he’s drunk. Could this character be subtle commentary from Chaplin about rich people who view others, particularly the poor, as disposable props, while they are ultimately trapped in a superficial life devoid of meaning, leading to destructive behavior such as excessive drinking?
The audience sympathizes with the Tramp while still having a laugh at his foibles. He succeeds in being a funny character that we care about. We see this develop in the affection he has for the Blind Girl and the flower that she gives him. He goes to extremes just to help her out, including shoveling droppings and stepping into the ring to get clobbered. In the end, he gives all the money to her, even as he’s bound for jail; we are touched by his sacrifice. The character balances the two extremes; being a prat-falling fool on one side and being a love struck hero on the other. Both sides are larger than life, and show Chaplin’s vision of the city as a place of cosmic coincidences, some tragic, others comic, which ultimately lead to a Happy Ending for those that deserve it, namely the Tramp and the Blind Girl.
In the city where everyone is indifferent or outright hates the Tramp, the one who shows kindness with no expectation of reciprocity is the Blind Girl. Her blindness is not just her lack of vision, her generosity towards the Tramp shows that she is blind to the social station that one occupies or whether they can afford to buy her flowers, although she does think the Tramp is a rich man. She is the only one who sees the Tramp for his real human value, especially at the end when she realizes who he really is.
The title, City Lights, can refer to her experience with the Tramp, in that, thanks to his help, the “lights” can come on and she can see. It could also refer to the Blind Girl herself; in a city full of people who disdain the Tramp, she is the one who causes his countenance to “light up” with joy.
In the end, we can see City Lights as commentary on people. People show their value not through what they can buy, but what they are willing to do for those others with no thought of getting anything in return. Chaplin’s poor childhood certainly shows its influence in this film and in the Tramp character in general. The fantasy – that someone out there will love me for me regardless of my wealth – is one that everyone can understand and appreciate, and it is communicated in a careful, artful way, which is why this film is so highly regarded.