“City Lights” (1931) is one of the most fascinating films of Charlie Chaplin’s career and of that era of filmmaking, on the awkward cusp between silent and sound. The Little Tramp evolves to a multi-dimensional character, no longer just the vaudevillian scamp, but an Everyman. It is also one of the last times we see him, because sound, as Chaplin himself feared, would be the end of this perhaps most recognizable icon of the young movie industry.
His silence, not the films being silent, but the character’s silence made him easily to identify with by people of different cultures all over the world. Speech would make him less universal, and Mr. Chaplin knew that.
Chaplin made a slight concession to the new sound film industry by adding a musical score he had composed for this film, and a few sound effects, but he drew the line at the spoken word. There was none of that to intrude on The Little Tramp’s world.
It is the story of how he befriends a blind flower girl. He also helps out a drunken millionaire about to commit suicide. “Be brave! Face Life!” Played by Harry Meyers, the character, An Eccentric Millionaire, is pals with The Little Tramp only during bouts of drunkenness. Sober, he doesn’t even recognize him. Chaplin exhibits his usual athletic grace while slipping on the waxy floor of a nightclub, and when he swallows a whistle, the blowing of the whistle is one of the few sound effects we hear.
When the millionaire takes off for Europe, The Little Tramp has no extra handouts to help him care for the lovely street flower seller, played by Virginia Cherrill. At their first meeting, she mistakes his character for a wealthy man, and he tries to uphold that image for her, lying to her and passing on what money he can to her. When she is sick, he gets jobs to help out her and her elderly grandmother, including a famous scene as a boxer when he takes on the champ for a share of the purse.
There are some cute bits in the film, such as when he furtively whispers to someone in the fighter’s dressing room and we are meant to assume he is asking for the men’s room, when he really only wanted was to get a drink of water from the water cooler. He sizes up his formidable opponent, and fearful he will be killed in the ring, he coyly tries to befriend the stern prizefighter, who sizes Charlie up and immediately retires behind a curtain away from Charlie’s prying eyes, to change for the fight.
An African-American fighter also makes ready to take on his next fight, and refreshingly there are no stereotype caricatures of the day for this actor. He is just another fighter waiting for his turn in the ring. Like many athletes, he has a good luck ritual before the contest, and allows The Little Tramp to use his lucky rabbit’s foot and horseshoe to get luck for his own upcoming fight. Charlie feels reassured after using the good luck charms, until the boxer returns unconscious, carried from the ring. Then Charlie’s heart sinks. Inevitably, he will also be carried off after losing his own boxing match.
Eventually, The Little Tramp unwittingly becomes accused of robbing the millionaire, but runs away and gives the money he has received to the blind girl, so that she may have an operation to restore her sight. He knows he will go to prison, but makes the sacrifice for her sake.
In the final scene, one of the most powerful Chaplin ever filmed, we see that his famous character is no longer just the smart aleck, lucky fellow who always lands on his feet. Here, he is just released from prison, downtrodden and his carefree attitude seems lost forever. He looks beaten and bitter. There is a chance meeting with the blind girl, now with her vision restored and the owner of her own flower shop. She takes pity on The Little Tramp, whom she does not know, and tries to give him a coin. When she touches him, she realizes it is her old friend, and the bemused pity she felt a moment before for an odd-looking stranger becomes a heartbreaking mixture of sorrow and gratitude to her friend.
Their roles are reversed; he is no longer the benefactor and she the object of pity. It is now the opposite, and both feel a sense of wonder and humility. His joy at discovering she can see makes his prison time worthwhile. His frozen expression of delight is priceless.
We get no wedding bells type of happily ever after from this movie, only that pure moment when two human beings cross paths, each of them reaching a personal, and yet shared, destiny.
Here is that final scene.