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The Circus
City Lights (1931) - Selected Charlie Chaplin
88    Dibyendu Banerjee    04/01/2023

City Lights (1931), depicting the story of the Little Tramp falling for a young blind woman, selling flowers on the street, who mistook him for a millionaire, is the ultimate of his Little Tramp chronicle and perhaps the most cherished film by Charles Chaplin. Considered by many critics as the crowning accomplishment of Charlie and the epitome of his art, the film ranks one of the greatest films of all time. In the film, he remained steadfast in his love for the expressive beauty of the pre-talkie form and achieved a new level of grace, in both physical comedy and dramatic poignancy.

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Apart from the character of the Little Tramp, the most famous cinematic image on earth, the film successfully contained most of the aspects of the silent era comedy, which include the crudeness and the slapstick, the pathos and melodrama, the pathos and the comic situations. The filming of City Lights started in December 1928 and ended in September 1930, with almost 190 days of actual shooting. However, the prolonged procedure represents the hardest, as well as the longest undertaking in Chaplin’s career, as he had to work two years and eight months at a stretch to complete it.

city lights

When Charlie decided to make a film about blindness, he initially had the idea to play the role of the Little Tramp, who was quickly losing his sight but was trying to hide his disability from his little daughter. However, the original idea was changed to finally give the shape of a blind girl, who romanticised the image of the Little Tramp who falls in love with her and makes great sacrifices to arrange sufficient money for her unpaid rent and medical expenses to regain her sight.

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Once he finalised the decision, Charlie could clearly visualise the end of the film, the moment when the blind girl, with her restored sight, finally identified the sad reality of her benefactor, simply by touching his hands. Long before the shot was taken, Charlie also knew that if he could film the scene successfully, it would be one of the finest scenes in film history. He was proved to be right and it was described by film critic James Agee as the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies.

city lights

Charlie Chaplin spent many gruelling weeks even on the deceptively simple scene of the first meeting of the Tramp and the blind flower girl, when he buys a flower from her, setting up the pace of the story. Only through action alone, he established the meeting of the two unknown people in a scene spanning only two to three minutes, depicting the Tramp’s realisation that she is blind and his instant fascination and pity for her and the girl’s misconception that this poor creature is a rich man.

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Charlie worked day after day untiringly to finalise the shot and became satisfied after 342 takes of the scene and immediately after the sequence, having built up the sentiment to a high pitch, he brilliantly dashed it with a touch of broad comedy.

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Charles selected a 20-year-old Chicago socialite and recent divorcée, Virginia Cherrill to play the role of the blind girl. Although she was inexperienced as an actress, he was impressed by her ability to give the impression of blindness and wanted her to blindly follow his instruction. However, the collaboration was not easy as Charlie felt she was just an amateur and lacked the necessary dedication to the job. At one point, he even tried to replace her with Georgia Hale, his leading lady in The Gold Rush. Much later, Virginia divulged that Charlie never liked her and she never like him. Notably, she was the only actress with whom Charlie failed to establish a romantic relationship.

city lights

The film opens with the unveiling ceremony of a new monument Peace and Prosperity, before an assembled dignified civic group. After a boring speech by a pompous dignitary, when the dust sheet was lifted to uncover the Greco-Roman stone statue, it was found that the Little Tramp, dressed in his usual black baggy pants and black tight coat, was blissfully sleeping in the lap of the heroic Greco-Roman central figure. While the crowd was taken aback at the sight, the angry officials started to shout at him, instructing him to come down immediately. As the Tramp woke up by the commotion and became aware of the crowd, he embarrassedly made a clumsy effort to climb down the statue. Unfortunately, while he was trying to climb down, the sword of the statue pierced his pants and he became hooked, stuck up the back of his pants. As the National Anthem, the Star- Spangled Banner, started by that time, he took off his hat in respect and stood at full attention, although he could not find his footing. After several minutes of slapstick, he somehow manages to escape the scene of public wrath. After that, while he was walking down the street in the busy city in his afternoon stroll, he rebuked two newspaper boys who taunted him for his shabby dress and while coyly admiring a nude statue narrowly escaped from falling into the opening and closing vent of a freight elevator behind him.

city lights

The Tramp accidentally met the beautiful flower girl on a street corner, when he entered and exited through the doors of an expensive parked limousine in a traffic jam to avoid a motorcycle policeman. Although his first reaction was a flirtatious one, he became instantly infatuated, when in the course of buying a flower for his buttonhole he realised that the girl was blind. However, the girl mistook him for a wealthy man when she heard the door of an automobile slammed shut after his departure. But the girl was misguided by the sound, the Trump tiptoed back and silently watched her, as she changed the water for her flowers at the fountain.

city lights

That evening the Tramp saved the life of a drunken millionaire, while he was trying to get himself drowned by tying one end of a rope to a large piece of stone and the noose around his neck. After he eventually convinced the Millionaire that he should live, the man accepted the Tramp as his new best friend, took him to his mansion for a few strong champagne toasts and then went out for a night on the town, where the Tramp inadvertently caused much havoc. As they returned to the mansion early in the morning, the Tramp noticed the Flower Girl passing slowly towards her vending spot. He immediately pursued his drunk friend to purchase some flowers, took some money from him and rushed to find the girl. He brought up her whole basket of stock for ten dollars, gave her one ten dollar bill extra and drove her home in the rich man's car. However, the rich man could identify the Trump as his friend only when he was intoxicated. So when the Trump returned to his mansion, he could not remember anything about him and ordered his butler to toss him out of his house.

city lights
The Trump with his rich friend

Nevertheless, as he did not find the girl in her usual place, the Trump went to her place to overhear a doctor informing her grandmother that the girl was having a fever and in need of careful attention. The information made him determined to help her and he took the job of a street sweeper. On his lunch break, he visited the girl with groceries while her grandmother was out of the house for selling flowers. There he also discovered a story in a newspaper about a Viennese doctor who has devised an operation that cures blindness. Apart from that, he also found an eviction notice, which was kept secret from the knowledge of the girl by her grandmother. Before he left the place, he promised the girl to pay the rent, but returned to his job to find he was fired as he was late.

city lights

While he was desperate to get a job and earn money to help the blind girl, he was convinced by a man to appear as a boxer in a mock fight and split the prize money. But as the other mock fighter fled at the last moment apprehending of being arrested by police, he was replaced by a no-nonsense fighter who knocked the Tramp out, despite his innovative nimble efforts to keep out of reach. He then accidentally encountered the drunken millionaire for the third time, who again took him to his mansion and was kind enough to give him a thousand dollars for the eye operation of the blind girl. However, unknown to both of them, two burglars were hiding in the house when they entered and on hearing about the cash, they knock out the millionaire, took away the rest of his money and fled. The Trump called for the police, who found him with the money his drunken friend gave him, but the millionaire could remember nothing when he came to his senses. However, somehow the Trump could evade the police long enough to give the money to the girl, informing her that he would be going away for the time being, as he was apprehensive of being arrested and jailed.

city lights

Months later, after his release from the jail, the Trump went to the usual street corner to see the girl, but she was not there. By that time with her sight restored, the girl opened her new flower shop with her grandmother. However, simply by chance, he came near her shop, where the girl was arranging flowers in the window. For a few seconds, he came frozen as he saw her through the glass window and then broke into a broad smile. Naturally, the girl could not recognise her benefactor, but was flattered by his look and giggled at her employee, as she made a conquest. The Trump suddenly felt embarrassed and as he began to shuffle away, the girl came out of the shop door and offered him a flower, which he accepts shyly. But as the girl took his hand and pressed a coin in his palm, she immediately recognised the man by the touch of his hand and her smile abruptly turned into a look of puzzlement. As she eagerly ran her fingers along his arm, his shoulder and his lapels, she questioningly looked at him and he nodded. He enquired about her sight and she informed him that she got back her sight and pressed his hand to her heart with a tearful smile, while he also smiled shyly as the film ends. This ultimate scene in Chaplin’s City Lights is considered one of the most touching moments in film history.

city lights

Even before Charles Chaplin began filming his City Light (1931), the sound film was firmly established. But Chaplin boldly ignored speech in the film, as his Tramp was a universal character and his mime was understood in every part of the world irrespective of any language. Charles knew that if the dialogues of the Trump are restricted to a particular language like English, it would lose its universal character and its worldwide audience would instantly shrink. City Lights was immediately successful upon its release on 30 January 1931, with positive critical reviews and its premieres were among the most brilliant the cinema had ever seen. While Albert Einstein was Chaplin’s chief guest in Los Angeles, in London Bernard Shaw sat beside him.

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Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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