“If you could only see me as I really am, not as I appear but as I really am, as I am in my heart.”
City Lights was a very important film for Charlie Chaplin. His public image had taken a shredding in his ugly divorce from his second wife, Lita. The film he released at the time of the divorce, The Circus (1928), while profitable, was not a monster hit in the traditional Chaplin style, and the universal critical read was “good, but no Gold Rush.”1 The federal government hit him up for hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes. Worst of all, the talking film had arrived, destroying the whole world of silent pantomime on which he had built his career.
But City Lights put Chaplin back on top. The public loved the film, all around the world, as it had loved The Kid and The Gold Rush.2 Chaplin re-established himself as the one and only Charlie, the one man in Hollywood who could do precisely as he pleased. He didn’t have to answer to the studio or the bankers, or anyone else. While his rivals Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton slid into anonymity, Chaplin’s unique popularity endured for another decade. He was still the unchallenged King of Comedy, in a class all his own.
Despite its great success, City Lights is not one of Chaplin’s best films. The mawkish plot, involving a beautiful blind flower girl who mistakes the Little Tramp for a millionaire, is even more shameless than The Kid. The gags in the film, though there are plenty of them, don’t come close to the sustained brilliance of The Gold Rush, or even the ingenious set pieces of The Circus. What City Lights does have is one of the most touching closing shots in film history, when the Tramp trembles before the gaze of his beloved flower girl, who at last can see.
Even by Chaplin’s standards, work on City Lights was dilatory. He ran up a tab of over $1.5 million, very little of which showed up on screen, because he kept his entire cast and crew on salary and on call for twenty-two months, while actually shooting for “only” 179 days. Most of the delay — almost a year — occurred while he agonized over a way to show the blind girl mistaking the Tramp for a millionaire, allowing her to imagine him as tall, handsome, glamorous, and rich.
While he wasn’t working on the film, Chaplin spent a lot of time hanging out with Douglas Fairbanks, père et fils. “Charlie didn’t want to make any more films,” according to Doug, Jr. “Neither did my father. He had done his best work and he had no interest in doing any more.”
That may have been true of Fairbanks, who was six years older than Chaplin and had made eleven films in the twenties compared to Charlie’s three, but Chaplin wasn’t done yet. Fairbanks off-screen was scarcely distinguishable from Fairbanks on-screen, a handsome, self-confident guy totally at ease with himself who had huge amounts of fun wherever he went.3 Chaplin, on the other hand, a classic manic-depressive, could never really relax except when he was working.
For his leading lady Chaplin chose an unknown, Virginia Cherrill, not an actress, whom he saw at a prize fight. Cherrill was very near-sighted, and Chaplin felt that her unfocused gaze suggested blindness.4 According to Cherrill, Chaplin was never interested in her sexually. “I was twenty. Charlie liked them young.”
But Chaplin discovered Cherrill, and however much he struggled with extracting a performance from her — in typical Chaplin fashion, halfway through the picture he fired her, only to realize that reshooting her scenes was not an option5 — the results are worth it. Although Cherrill is off-screen for most of the picture, the film turns around her, and the first glimpses of her, beautiful and helpless, surrounded by a heartless, uncaring world, affect the audience almost as much as they do the Tramp.
City Lights has a remarkably unfunny beginning — Chaplin thumbing his nose (literally) at capitalism in a thoroughly heavy-handed manner. We’re in a park in an unnamed metropolis to view the unveiling of a statue saluting “Peace and Prosperity,” two things that, to Chaplin’s mind, capitalism had destroyed.6 Chaplin regular Henry Bergman plays the striped-pants mayor, mouthing nonsense with the assistance of a trio of society battleaxes.
When the drapery is removed from the statue, we see, of course, Charlie asleep on it. “Peace” and “Prosperity” are awkwardly posed, so that Charlie, sliding down from his perch, can take a sword up his ass (from “Peace,” apparently) — the first taste of a surprising amount of bathroom humor in the film.7 Police start to rush to remove him, but they’re interrupted by a fatuous rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner,”8 which requires them to freeze in their tracks. Later, Charlie thumbs his nose at the cops, via a strategically placed hand (“Prosperity,” I guess).
Once Charlie gets away from the crowd, the humor improves. He takes a little crap from some newsies,9 mostly to set up some shtick at the end of the film, but the bit also establishes the Tramp as less aggressive than in the past — not really the sort who would steal a baby’s hotdog, as he did in the beginning of The Circus — a boulevardier in rags, in fact, who dispenses with employment because it interferes with his enjoyment of the finer things.
The Tramp’s aesthetic proclivities are cleverly examined in a nice bit when he eyes a full-size nude statue in a store window with the eye of a connoisseur, stepping back to achieve the proper perspective on the work as a whole and then moving forward to consider it in detail — “I like the positioning of the hands, definitely, but there’s a problem with the torso.”10
As he steps back and forth before the statue, the doors of a sidewalk freight elevator open and close behind him, promising and then averting disaster in perfect, unconscious rhythm. When Charlie finally discovers his peril, he furiously berates the midget operating the lift, only to realize, once the elevator is flush with the sidewalk, that the guy is actually a giant.
Charlie departs in a hurry, finally meeting the Flower Girl, a still center of beauty in a beauty-blind world that doesn’t even know she exists, a world far blinder than she. Charlie, slipping through the backseat of a temporarily unoccupied limo to avoid the police (and so that Cherrill will think he’s a rich man), doesn’t notice that she’s blind at first, and Chaplin works this familiar riff for some good laughs before the Tramp spends what is surely his only coin11 on a flower. When she tucks it into his lapel, he stands there supremely humbled by the kindness and respect that this lovely creature has bestowed on him, a bit that only Chaplin would and could perform.
Cherrill goes home to her Dickensian home, which looks very much like a building one would see in Europe rather than the U.S., with no one but her mother and a pair of lovebirds for company. Charlie, passionately sniffing the posy that she gave him, wanders down by the river, where depressed millionaire Harry Myers12 is preparing to commit suicide. Charlie naturally gets involved, and the two fall in the river several times. Not great Chaplin, but funny enough.
Grateful but still despondent, Myers takes Charlie back to his mansion where they have a few drinks. As he’s pouring, Myers deposits most of the bottle down Charlie’s crotch, which Charlie somehow doesn’t notice. In fact, Chaplin never goes for the gross-out topper — that is, no one thinks that Charlie’s pissed his pants.
Myers contemplates suicide again, but Charlie talks him down, and this time the lesson takes. “James — the Rolls-Royce!” he tells the butler. “We’ll burn down the town!” They rush off to a nightclub in a very funny scene right out of The Rounders, the two-reeler Chaplin did with Fatty Arbuckle at Keystone — two rowdy gents in tails. They drink the night away and drive home in the early AM, one of the few times Chaplin uses a car as a prop.13
Once they return home, Charlie very conveniently observes Cherrill passing by on the way to work, her basket loaded with flowers. Borrowing ten dollars from his new friend, Charlie buys the lot and then, borrowing the Rolls Royce as well, drives Cherrill home, asking and receiving permission to visit her. She agrees, of course, and he leaves, only to pause on the stairs, staring up at her window.
Things are going swimmingly — too swimmingly, in fact. When Charlie returns to the millionaire’s mansion, the guy has sobered up and doesn’t remember Charlie! He’s only Charlie’s buddy when he’s drunk!14
The rest of the film has numerous detours. Charlie learns of a miracle cure for blindness. To pay for Cherrill’s treatment, he gets a job as a street-cleaner — confronted first by horses and then by elephants — and then signs up for a prize fight, again reworking material that he’d first done for Keystone, which is funny enough but not really top-drawer Chaplin. Ultimately, he obtains a thousand dollars from his drunk-again buddy, which he gives to Cherrill, but when the millionaire sobers up, Charlie’s off to the Big House, busted, improbably enough, on the same corner as those newsies who gave him a hard time earlier in the picture.
A placard proclaiming “Autumn” announces a dramatic shift in time. We see Cherrill with her own shop now, and a very smart shop it is, with Cherrill the smartest thing in it. She has that special confidence and poise of an attractive young woman who knows exactly how attractive she is, an elegant worldliness that contrasts stunningly with the delicate, unformed girl she used to be.15
The next shot takes us to the street corner where she and Charlie first met. It’s empty for a second, and then the Tramp appears. He presents a painful, almost frightening figure. His pants are ripped and he has no shirt at all, just a tattered jacket with which to cover himself.16 Even worse, he has no cane! He’s naked in both body and soul, a bare, forked animal, helpless before the world.
He stumbles along and encounters the newsies once more. This time he scarcely resists their humiliating assaults. Helpless and bitter, he ignores their viciousness. As he flees them, we see, through a full-length plate glass window, that Cherrill’s shop is located right on the corner. Cherrill’s assistant, broom in hand, comes through the door, sweeping out a mixture of leaves and stems, and one rose among the trash, depositing them all in the gutter.
Charlie sees the rose and bends over to pick it up, reminded, of course, of Cherrill. As he does so, one of the newsies rips what is apparently a shred of his underwear out of a tear in the seat of his pants.17 Chaplin manages to chase the brats off and then, in a pretty grim gag, blows his nose on the shred of underwear, folds it, and puts it in his pocket as a handkerchief. Worst of all, Cherrill is watching, and laughing at, his humiliation. What a pathetic fellow!
His dignity restored, so he thinks, the Tramp turns to go, and then catches sight of Cherrill in the window. He stares at her, mesmerized. When she notices him, she laughs and tells her assistant “I’ve made a conquest.” Charlie continues to stare, his nervous fingers unconsciously shredding the flower. Touched, but obviously not getting it, Cherrill offers him a new flower — in the friendly, condescending manner of someone speaking to a retarded child — and a coin.18 When she goes around to the door to bring it to him, the Tramp shies away, but he can’t quite bring himself to flee.
Cherrill gives him the flower, and places the coin in his hand, so he can’t refuse it.19 But as she touches his fingers, she realizes who he is. Holding the flower before his mouth in a vain attempt to conceal his fear, Charlie trembles before her as Dante quailed before the gaze of Beatrice20) on the peak of Mt. Purgatory: “As an arbalest will snap when string and bow/are drawn too tight by the bowman, and the bolt/will strike the target a diminished blow/so did I shatter, strengthless and unstrung.”21 But Dante only feared to be judged by his soul; how much more awful to be judged by our faces!
Chaplin leaves entirely unresolved how Cherrill will treat the Tramp now that she knows who he is. Surely she will be kind to him. But what is kindness compared to the unconditioned love she once gave him, and how can she give that now when she has become the exact opposite of what she once was? And how can the fantasies of either cope with the hideous and crushing weight of the real world?
While City Lights restored Chaplin’s fortunes, it had a truly bizarre effect on Virginia Cherrill’s. Cary Grant (right, with Cherrill), hitherto happily ensconced in “Bachelor’s Paradise” with beefy beach buddy Randolph Scott, decided to see how the other half lived and married her in 1934. Chaplin was Cary’s idol. Both were English, both had exceedingly unhappy childhoods, and both had been child performers.22 While Cary didn’t have his own studio, he emulated Chaplin’s independence to the extent possible: he was the only major Hollywood star of the thirties who did not have a studio contract — one reason, perhaps, why he never won a “real” Oscar. Marrying Virginia Cherrill was one way that Cary Grant could become “more” like Charlie Chaplin.
When Cary left Randy for Virginia, Randy moved next door to the keep the two company. Cary and Virginia split in 1936, causing (I guess; there does seem to be a sort of physics to this) Randy to get married, to heiress Marion Du Pont, daughter of William Du Pont, Sr. and great-granddaughter of Éleuthère Irénée Du Pont de Nemours, aka the Accent Master. Marion, like a lot of rich women, found horses more reliable than men, and spent most of her time back east with her stallions, while Cary and Randy admired each other’s muscles on the Coast.23
Cherrill, for her part, showed that she could manage an upscale rebound too, marrying George Child-Villiers, 9th Earl of Jersey, in 1937. George lasted her until 1946. Two years later, Cherrill hooked up with Florian Martini, apparently a bit of a no name, who lasted her until her death in 1996.
I have City Lights on DVD from Kino, from the “first wave” of DVD releases. Kino seems to have discontinued all of its releases of Chaplin features, and the only source is the “Chaplin Collection” series — two “big box” sets and individual, two-disc sets, which I have not seen. I don’t know if Chaplin ever recut City Lights.
The Unknown Chaplin, a three-disc set of out-takes, interviews, and other material, compiled by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, is available on DVD and is well worth buying or renting. There’s interview footage of Cherrill in this set. Chaplin’s autobiographical My Early Years, out of print but available secondhand through the web, makes fascinating reading. His My Life in Pictures, also out of print, has wonderful photos and memorabilia. Joyce Milton’s 1996 biography Tramp regards Chaplin short of idolatry, which is as it should be. Jeffrey Vance’s Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003) is pricey but has wonderful photos as well and probably can be gotten used at a reduced price.
I’ve written previously about Charlie for Bright Lights here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
- In the silent film days, Chaplin’s films always made lots of money, even though it could take time for the cash to roll in. Because of his unique status as an international star, his films could be shown in virtually every theater in the world. [↩]
- According to Chaplin biographer Joyce Milton, City Lights recovered its more than heavy $1.5 million production costs on the basis of the receipts from Paris alone (Paris, France, that is). In New York City, City Lights played at the George M. Cohan Theatre starting at 9 AM, with the last show beginning at midnight. [↩]
- Of course, that’s easier when you’re young. Fairbanks went through a bit of a mid-life crisis in the early thirties and ended up divorcing Mary Pickford and marrying “Lady” Silvia Ashley, a seriously upwardly mobile English lingerie model who married two lords, Doug, Clark Gable, and a prince before she was through. [↩]
- Charlie had awfully good eyes, didn’t he? Imagine looking across a dark, smoke-filled arena and being able to tell that a chick was near-sighted! But that’s the story. [↩]
- Charlie thought about replacing her with Georgia Hale, the female lead in his greatest film, The Gold Rush. Hale got the Gold Rush job through her friend Lita Gray, who had been the lead until Charlie got her pregnant and was forced to marry her. There seems to be some disagreement as to whether Hale slept with Charlie while filming The Gold Rush, but after Chaplin divorced Lita, he and Georgia did become lovers. Chaplin biographer Joyce Milton describes Georgia as “cheerful, undemanding,” apparently because she never tried to force Chaplin to marry her. [↩]
- Like virtually all radicals of the time, Chaplin saw World War I and the Great Depression, just picking up steam when City Lights was released, as two sides of the same capitalist coin. [↩]
- I guess getting a sword up your ass isn’t precisely “bathroom humor,” but it’s damned cloacal. [↩]
- “The Star Spangled Banner” officially became the national anthem in 1931. Earlier, the now forgotten “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean” was often used at patriotic events. The tiresome habit of playing the national anthem at the start of every sporting event began in World War II and unfortunately was not discontinued. Even though Chaplin was happy to leave class-ridden England, and seldom went back, he found America’s relentless self-love oppressive and obsessive. [↩]
- The newsies are seriously malicious brats, gloating in their cruelty. Their vicious nature may amount to a satire on “the press” by Chaplin, who thought himself horribly misused. As if his bad press wasn’t entirely his own fault. [↩]
- Chaplin used this same statue for a scene in A Woman of Paris, the film he directed in an attempt to make Edna Purviance a star in her own right. I discuss Chaplin’s fascination with nude statues at the end of my review of A Woman of Paris. [↩]
- The coin Charlie gives her is a big one, which is why he’s due some change. Perhaps because it’s very unusual for the Tramp to have any money, we don’t see how much it is — maybe a fifty-cent piece (now extinct, for whatever reason) or even a silver dollar. [↩]
- Myers was a bit player who appeared in hundreds of films. This is surely his only role that anyone remembers. Although the millionaire is something of a “double” character for Chaplin — a device he used over and over again in his earlier films without emphasizing it too strongly — Myers never emerges as more than a foil and plot device for Chaplin. [↩]
- Because he couldn’t drive. Chaplin was too self-absorbed to concentrate on anything outside himself. In this way he was the opposite of Buster Keaton, who was fascinated by mechanical devices and featured them endlessly in his films. [↩]
- Of course, when he first met Charlie he was sober, but, well, never mind. Plots are hard! [↩]
- A customer walks in wearing a top hat and a “morning” coat (I guess that’s what it is), looking like something you’d be a lot more likely to see on Bond Street in London in 1910 than in Sunny Cal in 1931, one of Chaplin’s many implicit looks backward to that golden (sort of) era before WWI, the event that destroyed the world of his childhood. [↩]
- Chaplin subtly varied his “Tramp” costume for special purposes. Usually he emphasizes the tattered formality of the Tramp for standard comic effect. Despite his poverty, the Tramp usually has a vest, a collar, and a bow tie along with his hat and cane, as he does at the beginning of City Lights. At the beginning of Easy Street, his greatest short, and one of his greatest films, made for Mutual in 1916, Chaplin has no vest, collar, tie, or cane, but he does have a shirt. [↩]
- The rip came from the sword of “Peace,” at the start of the film. [↩]
- Surely the same one he gave her earlier in the picture, if Chaplin gave a damn for continuity. [↩]
- And as Charlie placed it in her hand when they first met. [↩]
- Bice di Folco Portinari. As Dante tells it, he fell in love with her the first time he saw her, when she was eight and he was nine. As well-born Florentines, they were both destined for arranged marriages, and not to each other. Beatrice died when she was twenty-four. Dante wrote a few poems about her at that time, and then “I resolved to write no more, until I could write of her as no man ever wrote of woman before, as she doth well know.” (Translation from Dante’s La Vita Nuova — in effect, “My New Life” — by the pre-Raphaelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who probably told two hundred women that they were his Beatrice, at least until he got them in bed. [↩]
- Il Purgatorio, Canto XXXI, lines 16-20, translation by John Ciardi. If you’re reading this, you probably guessed that “arbalest,” which Word can spell, is another word for “crossbow.” Did Ciardi really need another beat that much? Dunno. He’s the poet, not me. [↩]
- Chaplin’s mother had a nervous breakdown when Charlie was about six. Grant’s father, a thoroughly unpleasant character, had his wife committed and told his son that she was dead. Grant never knew that his mother was actually still alive until he was well into his thirties. Cary worked in an acrobatic troupe as a teenager, giving him a bull neck that embarrassed him greatly (such muscles were suggestive of manual labor). He had the collars of his suits specially built up to make him look more genteel. [↩]
- Scott’s marriage to Marion lasted three years. When it ended, Cary topped it, in yet another act of compulsive one-upmanship, by marrying Barbara Hutton, the richest woman in the world. [↩]