What is there left to be said about City Lights? Everything that can be written, it seems, has been written. The greatest ending in the history of cinema. Orson Welles’ favorite film. Chaplin’s masterpiece that could only have been made after the advent of sound. And so on, and so on. That the masterpiece of silent cinema could only have been made after the talkies began seems an especially prescient point; watching City Lights, with its dialogue-as-robotic-squawking opening, I felt increasingly aware of the purity of silence.
The silent form, as employed by Chaplin, forces a certain distance from the Tramp that allows us to empathize with him in a way we could not empathize with a character we heard speak. Of course, the other comment that begs to be made is that, with sound, the grandiosity, the mythicness of the film—be it City Lights’ ambitious comedic sequences, or its moments of silent poignancy—could not be taken seriously.
When one considers the film’s enduring poignancy, one cannot help but feel comfortable with the assignment of the title “classic.” In this respect, we can see cinema working on a mythological level (does the existence of classics, I wonder, perhaps provide some support for Jung’s theory of a collective unconscious?). City Lights could probably enthrall a packed house today, despite the fact that it was made before an enormous amount of formal innovations that are now commonplace. Throughout the entire movie, the camera moves exactly once—a breathtaking dolly over a dance floor. The film’s staying power reaffirms that cinema is a medium that can subsist on narrative alone. Great stories will continue to engage audiences for as long as stories—and audiences—exist. True pathos is unfailingly compelling.
For the uninitiated, Chaplin’s character, the Tramp, falls for a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) who mistakes him, by an unlikely coincidence, for a millionaire. The flower girl falls for the Tramp as well, and in order to continue holding her affections the Tramp has to continue to maintain the appearance of a millionaire. But how? Enter the so-named Eccentric Millionaire (Harry Myers), a drunk recently abandoned by his wife. The Tramp talks him out of a drunken suicide attempt, and the two become fast friends, but the millionaire continually forgets who the Tramp is (and wants nothing to do with him) when he becomes sober. Luckily, the Tramp is able to get money from him whenever he’s intoxicated, enabling the Tramp to buy flowers from the girl, get her some food and even take her for a ride in the millionaire’s car.
As Slavoj Žižek has rightfully pointed out, City Lights stakes more on its final scene (which is about to be discussed) than any other film. The film’s entire narrative is essentially a setup for it, and while we get some brilliant comedic set pieces along the way, the film’s pathos lies in its ending. Has a human being ever appeared so nakedly? Throughout all of his work, Chaplin’s Tramp is constantly impersonating other people, playing other roles. In this film, he is “playing” a millionaire. In a section of Walter Kerr’s The Silent Clowns (conveniently handed out with the press notes for this release), Kerr points out this quality. “Ever since Chaplin arrived at his complex identity, he has been two things at once,” Kerr wrote. “He has been nobody and everybody, and he has been nobody because he can be everybody.” In the film’s final shot, as the Tramp presents himself for the flower girl, now cured of her blindness, we look at the Tramp for the first time. He is somebody—not an impersonator of a millionaire, a boxer, or anyone else. This final scene explains the film’s ability to jump “borders” with such ease: one of the most innate psychological desires is the desire to be accepted as oneself. In the end of City Lights, the tramp is presented for who he is. It’s naked self-exposure. All anyone wants, Chaplin tells, is not merely to be loved, but to be loved for being oneself. The sublime final shot takes us to this ontological, base level of humanity—after all this, can the Tramp be accepted as he is? What an unnerving, uncompromising, vicious ending.
In a sense, this moment is the anti-Hollywood, anti-cinema climax of Chaplin’s career. It’s the disavowal of any role, the disavowal of the concept of acting. This disavowal produces the most dramatic moment of his career (and, according to James Agee, the greatest acting in the history of cinema). This ridiculous tramp—who we have continually laughed at through his antics, his absurdities, his pitiful attempts to be what he cannot be—is, when reduced to his own essence, an object of extreme sympathy. The question one always wonders, of course, is whether or not the flower girl will accept the Tramp for who he really is. She “can see now” (in more ways than one) and runs a reputable business. The Tramp, recently released from jail, is at his lowest point. Will the flower girl accept him? The question is answerable, in a way—will we accept him? City Lights was as an anomaly, a silent movie released when talkies were sweeping the industry. Could the country make an allowance for this one figure, unable to communicate in any other way? For that matter, for an actor as gifted as Chaplin, was sound necessary? Could dialogue ever communicate the worlds of information conveyed the Tramp’s final look towards the flower girl, a look that combines fear, coyness, exhilaration, trepidation?
If the human voice shatters the etherealness of certain moments, then so too does language itself. How much of a purpose can writing about the final scene of City Lights serve? It’s so complex, yet it is so simple; this is not a film like the other towering “classic” of American cinema, which was made to be analyzed and written about at length. When going through the reams of literature on City Lights, I couldn’t help but feel as if some of the film’s magical essence had been infringed upon. Language is inadequate. Talk is cheap.
Zachary Wigon studies Film Production and Comparative Literature at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he is the editor of the film studies publication, the Tisch Film Review. In addition to writing and directing short films, he also writes film criticism for FilmCatcher and maintains a cultural theory blog, Between Fear & Commitment.