A Most Perfect Film

Introduction to City Lights *

By David Robinson

   City Lights is Charles Chaplin’s most perfect film; yet the making of it was the most critical period of his career.

By the time he began work in May 1928 the first all-talking pictures had begun to arrive on the screen.  The talkie revolution affected everyone in pictures, but for Chaplin the problems were particularly acute.  He had arrived in Hollywood at the end of 1913, when the film industry was still in its infancy.  In January 1914 he created the character of the Little Tramp which, within little more than a year, was to achieve world-wide fame. By the end of the 1920s, Charlie the Tramp was the most universally recognised and universally loved fictional representation of a human being the world had ever seen.

This universal recognition had been achieved precisely because the Tramp had been created in silent pictures.  He communicated with his audience in the worldwide language of mime.  If the Tramp now found a voice and expressed himself in words, the great international audience would at once be shrunk.  In any case, what language would the Tramp speak?  Would his voice have the accents of Chaplin’s native, London, or of the Bronx, or of California?

Chaplin agonized over the problem and then took a bold decision. He told his collaborators, the press and the world at large that sound films were a fad that would pass in a year of two.   It is unlikely that he believed this himself, but it served to justify his decision to make a silent film – on the titles he called it “A Comedy Romance in Pantomime” – using sound technique merely to provide a synchronized musical accompaniment and effects.

“I did not wish to be the only adherent of the art of silent pictures,” he said later, “nevertheless, City Lights was an ideal silent picture, and nothing could deter me from making it.”  The Tramp, alone in the hostile city, meets a fellow waif, a blind girl.  He also makes the acquaintance of an eccentric alcoholic millionaire who is overwhelmingly friendly when drunk, but embarrassingly denies all knowledge of him when sober.

Moved by the blind girl, the Tramp – foolish, mischievous, downtrodden, quixotic, resourceful, incorrigibly resilient, incorrigibly romantic – battles to scrape together the money for the operation that will restore the girl’s sight.  The pathetic irony is that sight will enable her to see the wretched state of the benefactor of whom she has built such a romantic image in her mind.

Chaplin had decided upon the poignant scene that ends the film even before he began to shoot and before the rest of the story was worked out.  There is no reason to amend the opinion of the great American critic James Agee on this last sequence of City Lights; “It is enough to shrivel the heart to see, and it is the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies.”

The perfection of City Lights– Alistair Cooke said that it runs with the ease of water over stones – was not achieved without pain.  No doubt anxious about his rashness in persisting with a silent film, Chaplin was nervous throughout the production:  there were sackings and replacements.  At one moment he even dismissed his leading lady, Virginia Cherrill.  Virginiawas a 20 year old divorcée and Chicagosocialite, whom he chose because of her ability to look both blind and beautiful, but she did not take her work as an actress as seriously as Chaplin expected from his collaborators. When Chaplin eventually reinstated her, Virginia took her revenge by asking for a bigger salary.  The studio records reveal that Chaplin worked tirelessly day after day to win the performance he wanted from Virginia.  During further long periods the studio was inactive as Chaplin agonised over the story – at this time he still worked without an advance scripts, improvising the film as he went along.  The production of City Lights in the end took more than two and a half years.
            When it was finally ready for release in January 1931, Chaplin was nervous about the reception of a film which might seem archaic to a public which had seen talking pictures like “Little Caesar”, “the Blue Angel”, “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “Sous les Toits de Paris”.  In the outcome it exceeded the triumph of “The Kid” and “The Gold Rush” and remains one of his best loved films.

            The Los Angeles première was one of the most glittering social occasions the film capital remembered; though the elegant audience practically rioted when the manager of the newly built Los Angeles Theatre stopped the film after the third reel to put up the lights and deliver a lecture on the beauties of the building.  Chaplin’s fury was only appeased by the minutes-long ovation at the end.
The British première took place at the Dominion Theatre, Tottenham Court Road, London, on 27th February 1931.  Despite pouring rain, vast crowds packed the streets in the hope of seeing Chaplin, but they were frustrated; the nervous management had smuggled him and his press representative into the theatre in the afternoon. During the show, Chaplin sat between Bernard Shaw and Lady Astor.  He was somewhat apprehensive about the reaction of the great dramatist but relieved when Shaw laughed and cried along with the rest of the audience.  Afterwards a reporter asked him if he thought Chaplin could play Hamlet.  “Why not,” replied Shaw.  “Long before Mr Chaplin became famous, and had got no further than throwing bricks, or having them thrown at him, I was struck with his haunting, tragic expression.”
*Article and pictures provided by the Chaplin Estate. City Lights @Roy Export S.A.S.
PROGRAM| Sat, March 18, 7:30 PM
CITY LIGHTS: Silent Film with Live Orchestra
Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra
Matthew Kraemer, conductor
City Lights © Roy Export S.A.S.
Tickets: $35 ($12 students)
Location: Schrott Center for the Arts, Butler Arts Center

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