City Lights remains Charlie Chaplin’s greatest film. Even in the face of potentially career-ending technology, Chaplin went against the trend of “talkies” in the 1930’s to make another silent film featuring his iconic Tramp character. Why did he take such a huge risk? Chaplin, as this film proves, was one of cinema’s greatest visual storytellers, using images to create humor, character and narrative.
To this day, City Lights remains one of the best examples of visual narrative. Yet even within this self-imposed limitation, sound is still important, even if it’s always implied instead of heard. The female lead of the film is a blind flower girl, meaning her character “sees” the world through sound. This also puts her character at the opposite spectrum of the audience, as we consume the film visually without the aid of dialogue or diegetic sound. Chaplin uses the scene in which his Tramp character meets the Blind Girl to draw attention to this important feature. At a crucial moment in the scene, a limousine door slams, the noise being implied through the image as well as the characters’ reactions. Yet the fact that the Blind Girl only hears the car door, and can’t tell the Tramp is obviously not the owner of the luxury vehicle, causes her to mistake him for a rich man instead of a hobo on the run from a police officer. At the same time, the Tramp’s good nature makes him kind to the unfortunate woman, while also preventing him from correcting this case of mis-identification. This one scene demanded over 300 takes, and for good reason – it drives the entire story! When you think of actions-speaking-louder-than-words in cinema, you’ll want to have this in mind.
City Lights also shows how comedy can do more than simply make people laugh. Made and set in the Depression, Chaplin uses the film as a way to inspire and give hope to the downtrodden. In a memorable scene, Chaplin’s Tramp, despite his impoverished state, strolls happily along because he has fallen in love with the Blind Girl. He comes across a drunken, wealthy man on the verge of committing suicide. As the Tramp tries to transfer his good feelings to prevent the man from killing himself, a physical gag results in the Tramp being thrown from the bridge instead of the rich man. Yet this failed suicide attempt makes the rich man reconsider his action and forge a friendship with the Tramp. While this becomes an important point in the story, it also adds rich depth and context to the setting of the Great Depression. It also allowed Chaplin to cleverly sneak in a message without turning the film into a sermon: class divisions between the rich and the poor mattered less than helping others in a time of need.
As mentioned earlier, by the time Chaplin made City Lights, silent films were already a relic of the past. However, Chaplin understood that giving the Tramp a voice would dim his worldwide appeal. The character had defined the silent film era through his physical appearance and Chaplin’s skilled pantomime. For these reasons, Chaplin decided to keep City Lights silent to preserve the character’s integrity. However, in recognition that “talkies” were the evolution of cinema, he dubbed the sound of horns over groups of people talking in the beginning of the film, a playful nod to the audience. Yet Chaplin would go on to make one more silent film featuring the Tramp character, the aptly titled Modern Times. In a 1933 interview, Chaplin said about his iconic character: “I wanted the clothes to be a mass of contradictions [baggy pants, tight coat, small derby hat and a large pair of shoes], knowing pictorially the figure would be vividly outlined on the screen…The clothes seemed to imbue me with the spirit of the character. He actually became a man with a soul – a point of view…He wears an air of romantic hunger, forever seeking romance, but his feet won’t let him.”
Stills from City Lights