You probably don’t need me to tell you how fabulous Charlie Chaplin‘s City Lights is. Even those complaints that it’s a sickly, sentimental and simplistic piece of fluff fade away when you watch it again and realise how carefully he works towards the heart-aching conclusion, how skilfully he earns that sentiment before positioning himself as a tragically noble figure. (If you’re a truly hardened misanthrope with no interest in Chaplin, you might be better off here.) I’ve always been fascinated by the mechanics of certain kinds of performance, particularly the intricacies of the best kung fu films, or a well-worked slapstick routine, so I thought I’d have another look at some of the motifs that structure Chaplin’s physical action in City Lights. I’ll assume you’re not already an expert on Chaplin, and start somewhere simple…
By 1931, when City Lights was ready for release, the rest of Hollywood had converted to talkies. The transition had been swift and dramatic in its implications. For a great collection of online articles on the early history of film sound, you can’t do much better than the collections at Filmsound.org or The American Widescreen Museum. The conversion of theatres and studios to sound recording and playback equipment had been near-universal; for the sake of synchronised sound and music, sacrifices were made in terms of camera movement (microphones and cables tethered the action on set, and noisy cameras had to be boxed in to stop them interfering with the sound recording), and until 1931, when three-way speaker arrays to spread the sound signals were introduced, the playback was murky and sometimes indistinct. Chaplin had honed the art of silent pantomime in his films, and there was massive anticipation about how this star, whose act was so perfectly matched to wordless gesture, would adapt to the changes. As David Robinson writes:
His Tramp character was universal. His mime was understood in every part of the world. But if the Tramp now began to speak in English, that world-wide audience would instantly shrink. Moreover there was the problem of how he should talk. Everyone, across the world, had formed his or her own fantasy of the Tramp’s voice. How could he now impose a single, monolingual voice?
As it turned out, Chaplin didn’t attempt to make the transition to talkies, preferring to keep his silent craft intact. He waves away the expectation with an opening title that introduces the film as “A comedy romance in pantomime”. Time‘s 1931 review of the film quoted Chaplin’s own slightly tangential explanation:
Chaplin does not reject the sound-device because he does not think his voice will register. His objection is that cinema is essentially a pantomimic art. Says he: “Action is more generally understood than words. Like the Chinese symbolism it will mean different things according to its scenic connotation. Listen to a description of some unfamiliar object—an African wart hog, for example. Then look at a picture of the animal and see how surprised you are.”
There are a few sounds in City Lights, but they are isolated, not part of a broad fabric of ambient diegetic sound. In the opening shots, local dignitaries address an assembled crowd for the unveiling of a new statue. The PA system transforms their voices into an indecipherable, tinny squawk (a joke later echoed at the beginning of Jacques Tati‘s Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot), which one can’t help reading as a riposte to the fad for dialogue. These electrically mediated voices end up making everybody sound the same. And everybody sounds like Sweep.
Other sounds are similarly troublesome. See for instance the lovely sequence where, drunk at a party, Chaplin swallows a whistle. A fit of hiccups makes him tweet involuntarily, dismaying a singer who is trying to perform, and attracting cabs and dogs when he rushes outside. It’s a beautifully worked joke, stretched just far enough to avoid becoming tiresome, and only partially reliant on the post-synched sound effect, which appropriately disrupts the musical soundtrack, stressing the sudden, stared-at embarrassment Charlie suffers. During the boxing scene, Charlie’s neck gets caught in the bell-rope. As he falls or struggles, the bell rings, and his opponent returns to or rushes out of his corner, probably salivating like a Pavlovian pup at the same time.
Elsewhere, Chaplin is again caught out by objects that behave like other objects, as when he eats party-streamers that have dropped in his spaghetti, or tries to take a spoonful from a man’s bald head mistaken for a party snack:
These recurrent, repetitive types of action add up to a mode of performance that sees Chaplin’s body in constant tension between composure and error. His body is challenged at every turn by threats to his dignity. It all begins from a logical starting point: he begins the film asleep on a statue, an unwelcome pest on an image of static decorum. For much of the rest of the film, he will struggle to stay still or posed against the tide of unpredictable movements that characterise his experience of the city.
Much of the comedy of Chaplin’s performance style derives from his attempts to maintain his dignity, as if to deny his derelict status. He tries to behave in a manner befitting his increasingly dishevelled suit (notice how the tipping of his hit becomes like a nervous tic), while all around him see through the disguise (e.g. the paper boys who taunt him, tearing fingers from his gloves or a patch from his trousers; the butler who repeatedly ejects him from the millionaire’s mansion). His careful, fussy comportment is messed up by a series of involuntary responses to things that startle, trip or baffle him, or which taste funny.
This may be why Chaplin loves to play drunk. What else is drunkenness (relax – it’s a rhetorical question) but a battle with one’s motor skills to prove that one is not actually drunk at all? Chaplin tries to keep an upright posture when sozzled, resisting those slips-of-the-limbs that might give the game away; when driven to distraction by watching a floor full of frenetic dancers, he leaps automatically to his feet and twirls anyone in his path to within an inch of their life, his face staying grimly fixed as if his head is a motion-sick passenger on a runaway trunk.
Arthur Rankin has a wonderful take on Chaplin’s performance in City Lights. Using Sigmund Freud’s theory that there were two types of joke, the tendentious and innocent, Rankin argues that Chaplin incorporates both modes of humour in order to make barbed social critiques, and then to make them palatable (or veiled) by developing his central character into an innocent, noble figure. Chaplin’s tramp avatar was lent some credibility through extratextual appeals to his early years of poverty in London, but there would always be an irony that the highest-paid, most famous film star in the world was still drawing upon the iconography of destitution in making his anti-authoritarian satires. City Lights sees him appealing for total audience sympathy: the tramp in this version is not only brought into conflict with the law when pushed into an unjust corner, and in a final bid to get enough money to pay for the blind flowergirl’s eye operation.
Cynthia Baron and Sharon Marie Carnicke’s analysis of City Lights is also well-worth seeking out. Building on Jan Mukarovský’s 1931 analysis, they stress the importance of gestures and “ostensive signs”, those which, as I understand it, show things as they are or seem to be:
The unique operation of ostensive signs becomes apparent when one considers something like the cane that belongs to Chaplin’s costume as the Tramp. The cane itself could be represented through iconic signs. However, a picture of the cane alone would convey little information about the Tramp, whereas a single image of Chaplin striking a pose with the cane could convey a particular attitude or mental state. For example, imagine a painting or photograph of Chaplin with his left palm resting on the top of his cane. However, if one then imagines a framed picture of this pose in a scene that features Chaplin moving into position to rest his hand on the cane, the existential difference between the two types of signs comes into view.
In this model of performance analysis, we have to consider how Chaplin moves into the poses that he strikes, the facial expressions that he produces for the spectator. Movement and gesture, actions carried out with hat or cane, rather than iconic or symbolic signs presented by the presence of those costume items, become the primary source of meanings and inferences emerging from a performance. Chaplin (or at least his character) produces a series of gestures and actions which can be understood as socially legible marks of dignified etiquette:
The perceptible elements of Chaplin’s performance can be seen as a series of interferences or disparities between Chaplin’s facial expressions, gestures and poses. The disparities among these elements make the performance visually and intellectually intriguing. They have the potential to engage audience attention because they confound expectations established by daily life; Chaplin’s gesture of tipping his bowler in apology might be followed immediately by a twirl of his canethat indicates defiance. These moments of gestural contradiction display Chaplin’s skill as a performer and can imaginatively express meanings bound into familiar axioms, quips and witticisms.
Chaplin’s anti-authoritarian physical quips arise from a rapid-fire mixture of respectable gestures of conciliation (tipping the hat, a respectful nod here and there) with more subversive behaviours (sleeping on the statue, drunkenness), best evidenced by the scene where he checks out a nude statue while miming the pretence of appreciating the sculpture next to it. Therein lies the beautifully complex performance of a man embodying socially conventionally bodily postures while revealing the basic instincts behind the hypocrisies of polite, “proper” behaviour. To a certain extent, it’s a performance about performance.
It’s probably compulsory at this point to refer to Henri Bergson‘s oft-cited mantra that “the attitudes, gestures and movements of the human body are laughable in exact proportion as that body reminds us of a mere machine.” By this he might mean that a comic body is one that is forced into automatic responses which throw it out of spontaneity and into involuntary activity that pits the organic being against environmental factors that would transpose it into “a certain mechanical inelasticity, just where one would expect to find the wide-awake adaptability and living pliableness of a human being.” (You can read the full text of Bergson’s essay here.) This would become a key part of Chaplin’s schtick, especially in Modern Times, where the automatisation of his body as part of a factory machine would make him a site of a contest between modernity and humanity, without ever losing sight of its grounding in the comic.
If this battle for decorum is a familiar trait of the Little Tramp character across a number of films, in which he refuses to assume the slovenly posture expected from him by those in whose company he is not permitted to belong (his performance of “their” gestures is an affront to their demarcations of class and privilege), in City Lights it is a major plot point, as he has to keep up the persona for the blind flower girl who has mistaken him for a wealthy gentleman. Thus, the performance of a silent pantomime, one in which gesture trumps dialogue in establishing or confirming (mistaken) identities is made to make sense of Chaplin’s decision to keep his film quiet.
P.S. You should check out the BFI’s collection of documents about Chaplin, specifically the ones relating to City Lights; a really valuable resource, my only complaint being that some of the print on the scans of the press books is too small to read. I love the exhibitors’ guides, where cinemas are given tips on how to promote the film with a series of publicity stunts, mostly involving people dressing up as the Little Tramp: the character, with its instantly recognisable agglomeration of hat, cane, moustache and eyebrows is supremely marketable.
Also see the holdings of the Bill Douglas Centre at the University of Exeter. The online catalogue has many images of Chaplinalia, some of which you can see in this virtual exhibition compiled by one of the students.