Great Movies: 'The Highest Moment in the Movies:' City Lights

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Talkies were in vogue, but Chaplin made a silent film that broke audience's hearts.
By Mark R. Gould

One of the most touching scenes in film history occurs when Charlie Chaplin, the tramp, is recognized by the flower girl at the conclusion  of "City Lights" (1931).

The film, directed by, and stars Charlie Chaplin. Virginia Cherrill  is the blind flower girl. Although "talking" pictures were on the rise since 1928, "City Lights" was immediately popular. Today, it is thought of as one of the highest accomplishments of Chaplin's prolific career. Although classified as a comedy, "City Lights" has an ending widely regarded as one of the most moving in cinema history.

Orson Welles described it as his favorite film. Stanley Kubrick listed it in his top ten. Woody Allen says it influenced the final scene in one of his best films, "Manhattan."

“If only one of Charles Chaplin's films could be preserved, 'City Lights' would come the closest to representing all the different notes of his genius. It contains the slapstick, the pathos, the pantomime, the effortless physical coordination, the melodrama, the bawdiness, the grace, and, of course, the Little Tramp--the character said, at one time to be the most famous image on earth,” wrote Roger Ebert.

The Museum of Modern Art published notes about "City Lights" a few years ago. “By 1931 the silent cinema was effectively dead. It took considerable courage to lavish two years of rather expensive production on a silent film, but Chaplin felt he had very little choice. He correctly perceived that the Tramp would lose his poetry and grace if he were coerced into the leveling mundanity of human speech. He foresaw that sound would force him to sacrifice the “pace and tempo” he had so laboriously perfected.

Chaplin as The Tramp, 1915“Chaplin, like most intellectuals of the period, saw no real advance in the replacement of silent films with those that talked and, even more commonly at the time, squawked. A few directors (Sternberg, Lubitsch, Clair, Hawks, Vidor) had done admirable work in distilling the better qualities of both sound and picture. Ninety-nine percent of what was released while 'City Lights' was in production, however, was ghastly and far below the standards of 1928, the last year silent cinema predominated in America.

“'City Lights,' with its synchronized track, uses sound for Chaplin’s own purposes, poking fun at the talkies and establishing moods through a musical score composed by the director. For the ever-essential purpose of conveying feelings and asserting the primacy of the heart, Chaplin was adamantly eloquent in his wordlessness...”

He eventually would make five sound films.

“Although the Tramp never changed, inevitably Chaplin did. By the time of City Lights, he was in his forties, and his hair had turned white in the course of his legal disputes with ex-wife Lita Grey. He also perceived that the world was getting uglier around him. The threat to his career posed by sound films and the fact that he felt lonelier than ever can only have added to his perplexity. Somehow, in spite of or because of this, City Lights brought forth from him a lyrical romanticism far more intense than his earlier work. Like all romanticism, it was dependent on a denial of the present, a retreat from reality.

By helping her restore her sight, he destroys the illusion she has about him.

“So the risk is taken, and the girl can now see that her chevalier is a bum. Their reunion is profoundly austere and awesomely moving in its ambivalence. We will never know if the girl can see beyond her sight and beyond Charlie’s wrinkled smile, timidly hidden behind a rose. What I think we do know is that final scene of 'City Lights' is, in James Agee’s words, “the highest moment in the movies.’”

Chaplin's feature "The Circus," released in 1928, was his last film before the motion picture industry embraced sound recording and brought the silent movie era to a close. As his own producer and distributor (part owner of United Artists), Chaplin could still conceive City Lights as a silent film. Technically the film was a crossover, as its soundtrack had synchronized music, sound effects, and some unintelligible sounds that copied speech pattern films. The dialogue was presented on the movie titles.

Chaplin was a perfectionist, and known for doing many more "takes" than other directors at the time. At one point he fired Virginia Cherrill, but soon rehired her. When Chaplin completed the film, silent movies  had become generally unpopular. But "City Lights" was one of the great financial and artistic successes of Chaplin's career, and it was his personal favorite of his films. Especially fond of the final scene, he said, "[In] 'City Lights' just the last scene … I’m not acting …. Almost apologetic, standing outside myself and looking … It’s a beautiful scene, beautiful, and because it isn’t over-acted."

The film was enthusiastically received by Depression-era audiences, earning $5 million during its initial release, and became one of Chaplin's most financially successful and critically acclaimed works.

In 1992, the Library of Congress selected "City Lights" for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." In 2007, the American Film Institute's tenth anniversary edition of "100 Years...100 Movies" ranked City Lights as the eleventh greatest American film of all time.

Miranda Seymour recently wrote a book, The Life and loves of Virginia Cherrill—Chaplin’s Girl.

According to "The Guardian", “The lonely child of a broken marriage, Cherrill justified her mother’s sacrifices to pay for private education: at 17 at a school dance in Chicago she met a rich, socially prominent man who begged her to marry him. Two years on, however, she was still unable to return her husband’s love and fled to Hollywood.

Book cover: THe Life and Loves of Virginia Cherrill; Chaplin's Girl“One evening the man seated next to her was Chaplin, who instantly decided that her fragile, vulnerable looks (in those pre-contact lens days, she had left her glasses at home) made her perfect for the blind flower-seller in his next film.

“Despite the title, Cherrill was one of the few leading ladies Chaplin didn’t tutor in bed. In fact, they detested each other for the two years it took him to make his first, stubbornly silent, movie after the introduction of sound. A paranoid perfectionist, Chaplin would show Cherrill how to play her role, demonstrating every tentative gesture, every fluttering eyelash. Cherrill would then copy him, sometimes hundreds of times, until he was satisfied. But, released from one taskmaster, Cherrill fell into the arms of another. Cary Grant also decided, at first sight, that she was the one for him but, while they were married, constantly found fault with her.


Visit your local library for these books and the films of Charlie Chaplin:


City Lights

Chaplin films available on DVD

My Autobiography
Charles Chaplin, (1964).

Chaplin: A Life
by Stephen Weissman, (2008).

Charles Chaplin: My Life in Pictures.
by Charles Chaplin, (1974).

Six Men
Alistair Cooke, (1978).

Charlie Chaplin:Intimate Close-Ups
Georgia Hale, (1999 edition).

Charlie Chaplin at Keystone and Essanay: Dawn of the Tramp
Ted Okuda & David Maska, (2005).

Chaplin: His Life and Art
David Robinson, (2002 second edition ).

Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema
Jeffrey Vance, (2003).

Charlie Chaplin: A Photo Diary
Michel Comte & Sam Stourdze, (2002).

Chaplin in Pictures,
Sam Stourdze (ed.), texts by Patrice Blouin, Christian Delage and Sam Stourdze, (2005).

Tramp : the life of Charlie Chaplin
by Joyce Milton, (1996).

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