A Most Perfect Film
Introduction to City Lights *
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.
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.