One Saturday when I was kid, my father said to my brother and me “there’s something I want you guys to see.” He loaded us into the car for the 15-minute ride across the George Washington Bridge to one of New York’s many repertory movie theaters where this film was being screened, during a brief revival of Chaplin enthusiasm in the early 1960s. Because of this experience, I associate City Lights with New York, the one and only city for those of us who grew up within its orbit, and at the turn of the twentieth century the original center of cinema culture in the United States, for both the production and the exhibition of films.
By 1931, when City Lights was released, Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character already was nearly twenty years old, introduced by the actor in a 1914 Mack Sennett comedy short. City Lights marks two transitions in Chaplin’s artistic career: From the comedy short that was the mainstay in American movie houses before World War I to the full length feature film, and from silent to sound production, introduced in Hollywood film with the 1927 release of Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer. City Lights, however, does not fit the conventional, contemporary idea of a sound film, with synchronized dialogue and carefully engineered ambient noise. Both of those elements have been pared out, with only limited sound effects and musical score left behind, a film type that would only occasionally reappear on the silver screen (most memorably in the work of French filmmaker and actor, Jacques Tati).
City Lights’ action takes place in what might pass as an imaginary version of New York (though most of its street scenes in fact were shot on a Hollywood studio back lot). One night Chaplin’s Little Tramp crosses paths with a thoroughly plastered and despairing millionaire about to throw himself in the river. In one of the film’s many slapstick scenes, the Tramp saves the millionaire’s life, and they become fast friends – so long as the millionaire is drunk. Otherwise, he doesn’t recognize the Tramp, and treats him with the contempt and hostility that the rich reserved for the apparently undeserving poor. So begins a comedy of misadventure and misrecognition, a story of the sort that defined the problem of anonymity and class conflict in the mid-twentieth century America city, reappearing in many urban comedies throughout Hollywood’s golden age: for instance, Gregory La Cava’s My Man Godfrey (1936), William Wellman’s Nothing Sacred (1937), and Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take it With You (1938) to name just a few. To this story of misrecognition across class boundaries, Chaplin adds a symbolically loaded romance between the Tramp and a blind flower seller (played by Virginia Cherrill), who mistakes him for a man of means, though one that is unusually kind and reliable.
This is the sixth in a series of weekly films selected and introduced by Film Studies faculty from the Kanopy streaming service subscribed to by Schaffer Library. You can access the Kanopy service so long as you are on campus or using the college VPN: at https://union.kanopystreaming.com.
(Notes by Andrew Feffer, History)