Masterpieces: Charlie Chaplin's City Lights
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In The Artist, George Valentin is a silent movie star who stubbornly refuses to change with the times and embrace talking pictures. It’s a story that echoes the real-life dilemma faced by Charlie Chaplin in the late 1920s. Against all commercial odds, Chaplin gambled everything on City Lights, a silent film that bucked the trend and stands as one of the great landmarks in cinema.
Filmed eighty years apart, The Artist and City Lights elicited similar reactions. Just as today’s movie fans are amazed at how bold it is for a black-and-white silent film to be presented in the digital era (never mind be an Oscar frontrunner), they were equally abuzz when City Lights premiered. Indeed, on January 29, 1931, the Los Angeles Times called it “the first non-dialogue film of importance to be produced since the advent of the talkies.”
The following story of City Lights is the Masterpiece featured in the new issue of mental_floss magazine. Here's a special sneak peek!
Masterpieces: Charlie Chaplin's City Lights
It was 1928, just months after the first talkie had hit theaters, and Charlie Chaplin’s life was a mess. He’d recently been through a highly publicized divorce. His ex-wife was selling stories to tabloids detailing his many affairs. The IRS was hounding him for $1.6 million in unpaid taxes. On top of his private woes, Chaplin’s career was on the ropes. As talking pictures swept the nation, silent film—the art form he’d elevated to new heights—was flickering out. In the last few years, major studios had stopped investing in the medium, and Charlie Chaplin, the world’s biggest movie star, had considered retiring.
But instead of packing it in, Chaplin decided to fight back. He wanted to produce one final movie that would put talkies in their place and showcase “the great beauty of silence.” When no one would finance his picture, he doubled down on his bet, cashing out his entire stock portfolio to finance it himself.
“Nothing could deter me from making it,” Chaplin said. Yet, 18 months and $2 million into shooting City Lights, Chaplin found himself wading in unfamiliar waters.
He’d never spent this much time working on a picture. Hits such as The Gold Rush (1925) and The Circus (1928) had been shot and stitched together effortlessly. But as the clock ticked and silent film became increasingly outdated, Chaplin’s anxiety rose. He fired his lead actress. He canceled shoots. He left actors waiting on set for full days at a time. Instead of a movie, he had a patchwork of disjointed scenes and sight gags. Hollywood insiders had already written him off, publicly proclaiming his downfall. For Chaplin, the stakes couldn’t have been higher. The fate of his career hinged on the success of this film.
A Sight for Blind Eyes
From the beginning, Chaplin knew City Lights would be about blindness. His original plot involved a circus clown who loses his sight, then must hide the fact from his sickly child. After tweaking the concept, Chaplin settled on an idea he liked better: his signature character the Tramp would fall in love with a blind flower girl, then try valiantly—and comically—to help her restore her sight. Along the way he’d befriend a drunk, enter a boxing match, get a job, lose that job, party with millionaires, get mistaken for a burglar, and land in jail. But not before coming to the flower girl’s rescue.
Chaplin’s biggest hurdle was finding a girl “who could look blind without detracting from her beauty.” He rejected nearly 20 actresses before discovering Virginia Cherrill sitting ringside at a boxing match. As he studied the 20-year-old society girl, Chaplin thought she was blind. It turned out she was just extremely nearsighted and had refused to wear glasses out of vanity. Chaplin didn’t mind that she had no experience as an actress. As a Svengali-like auteur, he routinely molded his costars with explicit directions about every gesture and expression. One of the young actors who played a street tough in City Lights opined, “I think Charlie would’ve much rather played all the parts himself if he could.”
Working with Chaplin could be exhausting. While the director was fair in many regards—he was scrupulous about paying the crew for their time—he was also erratic. Of the 534 days scheduled for filming on City Lights, Chaplin only filmed on 166. When he did shoot, he ran the cast ragged. The director demanded perfection, and his lead actress suffered the most. Chaplin hounded her. He belittled her. He drove her through 342 takes on a single scene alone. When Cherrill bristled, he called her an amateur. Then one day, when she returned late from lunch, he fired her. Chaplin recast the part with his Gold Rush leading lady Georgia Hale.
Before long, Chaplin realized his mistake—the time spent directing Hale and the cost of reshooting Cherrill’s scenes would set him back too far. In desperation, he re-hired Cherrill, though now at twice her original salary. The friction between the two leads was palpable, and it wasn’t just about money. As Cherrill said, “Charlie never liked me, and I never liked Charlie.” Yet, none of that animosity shows on screen; their scenes together are heartbreakingly tender, and some of the most extraordinary in all of cinema.
The Bet on the Table
For City Lights to truly outshine the talkies, Chaplin knew he couldn’t rely on gags alone. In previous films, he’d built thin scripts around a series of vaudeville set pieces. This time he insisted that plot and characters drive the action—a modern notion for comedies. He also retooled his storytelling: Chaplin interweaved the pathos and comedy to wrench more emotion from each scene. When a lonely millionaire contemplates suicide, it’s tragic. When the Good Samaritan Tramp attempts to save him from drowning, and accidentally ends up with a weight pinned to his own neck, the laughs come quickly.
For Chaplin, even the use of sound had to be innovative. In one scene, the Tramp accidentally swallows a penny whistle during a performance, then tries to contain himself as he hiccups an aria. This wasn’t standard “Mickey Mousing,” or punctuating a gag with a sound effect; Chaplin was doing something novel—using sound as the punchline.
Chaplin took nearly three years to complete City Lights. But even with a great film in the can, the odds were stacked against him. Despite his incredible track record, theaters had a wait-and-see attitude before they’d commit to screening the film. For its New York City debut, Chaplin was forced to roll out City Lights with a soft opening at an “off the beaten path,” “white elephant” movie house. Determined to make the film a success, Chaplin took over the movie’s PR and marketing. He dyed his hair. He talked up his fitness routine to reporters to prove he was still in his prime. And he sank $30,000 (equivalent to nearly $500,000 today) into buying newspaper ads, hiring ushers, and even having a new electric marquee installed at the theater. Chaplin obsessed over every detail. But ultimately, the public would decide.
When City Lights finally debuted in New York in 1931, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. The film was so popular that the theater had showings from 9 a.m. to midnight continuously, every day except Sunday. According to historian Charles Maland, “by the end of 1931, the [United Artists’] ledgers reveal, City Lights had already accumulated more domestic rentals than The Circus and over 90 percent of the domestic rentals that The Gold Rush had garnered since 1925.” Critics showered praise as well. The New York Times declared, “Mr. Chaplin’s shadow has grown no less.”
For a short period, it seemed that Chaplin had accomplished what he set out to do. Studios invested in silent pictures again. Screen legend Douglas Fairbanks Sr. talked excitedly about returning to the medium. And in 1931, the Oscar for Best Cinematography went to another silent film, Tabu. Many expected City Lights to nab the award, but it wasn’t nominated. As film historian William M. Drew wrote, “Perhaps Chaplin’s perceived audacity in persisting in making a silent film in Hollywood after sound had arrived ... seemed too great an act of insubordination for the industry to honor.”
But the swing back to silent films could never last. In a 1973 interview with director Peter Bogdanovich, Chaplin confessed that City Lights was his favorite of his films. Indeed, it’s often declared “the most Chaplin” of his movies because it bridges all of his strengths—the highbrow and the low, the serious and the slapstick. And while City Lights is considered the last of Chaplin’s silent films (it had sound, but no speech), the film marks the first time the director used his camera as a soapbox. As the Tramp pinballs between the worlds of the rich and the poor, Chaplin is highlighting the issues of the class divide. City Lights kick-started Chaplin’s move both to more political films, and to a more political life. In 1936, Modern Times voiced his anxieties about industry and society. And in 1940, Chaplin used The Great Dictator to bullhorn his opposition to Hitler.
But what makes City Lights a masterpiece isn’t its politics, or its silence, or even the fact that countless later movies have borrowed from it. What makes City Lights special, quite simply, is the story.
Throughout the film, the blind girl has mistaken the Tramp for a rich benefactor, only to learn his true identity after her sight is restored. The moment of revelation unfolds slowly. She hands the Tramp a flower, then presses a coin into his palm. Having an acute sense of touch, she recognizes the feel of his hand. The camera shifts between the mix of fear and longing in the Tramp’s eyes, and the confusion and tenderness in the flower girl’s. Author James Agee called the scene “the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies.” The fact that he had achieved it without words made it all the sweeter for Chaplin.
A Viewer's Guide
In the opening scene, Chaplin throws a curve ball at the crowd. A town official and a woman dedicating a statue are heard speaking. But instead of words, all the audience hears is Charlie Brown-style quacking. Minutes later, the Tramp is caught napping on the unveiled statue and climbs down. As an official yells at him, Chaplin pauses, his character inadvertently aligning his nose with the statue’s open hand. The message is clear: Chaplin is thumbing his nose at talkies.
The Magic of a Car Door
Mistaken identity is the driving force of City Lights’ love story. But Chaplin agonized over the first meeting between the blind flower girl and the Tramp. Specifically, he wondered what could possibly make her mistake the Tramp for an aristocrat. It wasn’t until a year and a half into filming that Chaplin had the idea to use the sound of a car door.
To avoid a traffic cop, the Tramp steps through a parked limousine, and exits onto a sidewalk. When the flower girl hears the door, she thinks a rich man has emerged from the car. The Tramp buys a flower from her then realizes she’s sightless. A moment later, when the door slams again, she calls out to the wealthy man for leaving his change behind. Meanwhile, the Tramp, still standing there, doesn’t bother to correct her. The simple scene sets the story in motion brilliantly. Chaplin called it “completely dancing.”
In one of the film’s funniest sequences, the Tramp enters a boxing match to earn money for the blind girl’s operation. The scene was planned for weeks, then shot over four days. That may seem excessive for five minutes of comic action, but consider that it was done without any edits. Chaplin was so proud of the complicated choreography that he invited all his friends to the filming. Virginia Cherrill described it as the “only social life we had at the studio.”
The Sounds of Silence
Chaplin’s perfectionism extended to the sound track. Unwilling to hand the task to anyone else, he scored an “elegant” musical backdrop for the Tramp’s hijinks—penning the melodies himself, then hiring musicians to fill out the lush sound. As Chaplin put it: “I wanted the music to be a counterpoint of grace and charm.”
“Yes, I can see now”
Perhaps the surest confirmation that City Lights was a masterpiece came at its Los Angeles premiere, where Chaplin’s friend Albert Einstein, the world’s greatest thinker and humanist, was in the audience. “During the final scene I noticed Einstein wiping his eyes,” Chaplin reported.