Chaplin’s “City Lights”

This class could not have been timed better with my recent fascination with Charlie Chaplin. Before the semester started, I spent hours watching old Chaplin films. I jumped around a lot, starting with his 1940 film “The Great Dictator,” I went on to watch “Chaplin,” a 1992 biopic starring Robert Downey Jr. as Chaplin. I then watched “The Kid” (1921), “City Lights” (1931), “The Gold Rush” (1925) and “Modern Times” (1936) in a pretty short amount of time. One of the most applicable and informative films  to the class is “City Lights.”

In “City Lights,” Chaplin’s Tramp character falls in love with a blind flower girl who mistakes him for a millionaire. The Tramp then stops a man from drowning himself. As it turns out, the man who the Tramp saved is a millionaire who was recently divorced by his wife. The Tramp repeatedly stops the millionaire from killing himself throughout the evening. The Tramp and the millionaire make great friends, and have a wild night of drinking, eating, dancing, fighting, and partying. The film is a little bit like “The Hangover” in this regard. The millionaire seems to have no memory of the Tramp when he’s sober, but loves him when he’s drunk. As the story progresses, the Tramp becomes a suitor of the blind flower girl, and when she falls ill and stops making money, her and her grandmother are threatened with eviction. The Tramp (still under the ruse of being rich) promises to solve their financial problems (along with paying for the blind girl’s miraculous eye-fixing surgery). He works as a street cleaner, a boxer, and is finally given the money from the drunken millionaire. Through a mixup, and due to the millionaire receiving an amnesia-inducing blow to the head, he doesn’t remember giving the Tramp the money. The Tramp escapes, gives the girl the money, and is caught the next day. After being released from jail, he meets the flower girl again and they fall in love.

In this film, the city is portrayed a fast-paced, lively place. In a couple early scenes, the publicity of city life discussed in class is readily apparent. In the opening scene, at the unveiling of a new monument dedicated to “Peace and Prosperity”, the Tramp is discovered to be sleeping on one of the statues. For the audience of the time, this would not just be really funny but also hit pretty close to home. “Peace and Prosperity” was not what the audiences of the day were experiencing. In 1931 the Great Depression was was in full-swing. People sleeping in public spaces would be a usual sight, not unlike the homeless today. This treatment of the public as the private marks a penetration into the public by the private due to the economic hardships of the time. The Tramp tips his hat many a time to the crowd and the statues on which he climbs around, stopping only for the “Star Spangled Banner” to play.

Similarly, we see the Tramp living his public, impoverished life when walking down the street when he sees a nude sculpture in a storefront. He stops to look, of course, while pretending to be looking at the other sculpture. The Tramps dubiousness in admiring the sculpture shows a consciousness of surveillance. That surveillance is literally in the background of the shot as a traffic-guiding police officer. In the background of the shot is a torrent of crowds and cars while in the foreground is a humble Tramp ogling at the nude statue. It is both a public and a busy life.

Interestingly, the music of the film seems to flow along with the story and the city. At times, it can be languid and trodden, at times, manic and wild. It is important to note that Chaplin composed most of his films’ musical scores, and the flow of music in the film is certainly intentional. Also of note, this late into the 20th century, talkies were already out. It would actually be a whole 9 years before Chaplin does his first talkie, and he only narrowly clips by accusations of being a luddite.

There is a lot more to be said about the certain social “spheres” of the city that Chaplin’s character penetrates, and I think I may want to save my larger blog post for something that focuses on that.

Some extra shots from the film I think are awesome:

Apparently the whole movie is on youtube!



Filed under City Cultures

2 responses to “Chaplin’s “City Lights”

  1. marximusvance

    First off, I’m really glad someone is posting about Charlie Chaplin. I too, just recently watched The Great Dictator and was stupidly surprised by how good he is. Chaplin is great at mixing humor with social commentary and that is why he is still looked at as one of the greats. I love that he comments on the elements of surveillance with a tramp looking at a nude sculpture. It doesn’t go for the obvious “sinister lady snatcher” type of guy, but one that is just interested in the female body.

    Also commenting on the poverty of the city and it’s own denial of its poverty seems like a very interesting idea. How the city believes itself to be one of prosperity, but actually is not. I need to see this movie and most of everything else he has done.

    (also if you need help embedding images on your post, you can message me and I can help you do it.)

  2. I love Chaplin’s portrayal of the city in Modern Times, and it sounds like it’s along the same lines in City Lights: a fun playground, but also a risky place to live. I’d love to see you apply some of the concepts about urban space and sociability to Chaplin films for your final project.

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