Courtesy Film Forum/Kino International
Charlie Chaplin in the indelible final scene from the classic “City Lights,” now in a new 33mm print at Film Forum.
Still in love with the Little Tramp
By JERRY TALLMER
Edward Albee won’t remember this, but once, one Saturday afternoon many years ago, when he was just getting recognized as a playwright of some consequence, he was standing in line at an uptown movie theater, waiting for the show to break and a seat to become available, and so, as it happened, was I. We nodded hello, and then the show did break and the people poured out: fathers and kids for the most part, the Saturday-afternoon ritual of divorced daddies touching base with their offspring.
The kids were all laughing and babbling and poking questions at the daddies “Why were those newsboys making fun of him? Why was he staring at the blind girl? Why did she give him that flower?” while the daddies were gulping and gasping and had handkerchiefs to their faces to staunch the tears that were pouring down.
Edward looked at me. I looked at Edward. Then we went in and took our separate seats to see not for the first time in my case, and I feel safe in guessing also his the greatest movie ever made. It is called “City Lights,” it was made by Charles Chaplin in 1931, and praise be to God, it is to be with us in a new 35mm print through New Year’s Day at Film Forum on Houston Street.
From the era of Sophocles, Euripedes & Co., to now, the symbol of the drama has been two intertwined masks, one that is laughing and one that is crying.
The single funniest take in this movie of a thousand laughs passes in the blink of an eye or in two shakes of a lamb’s tail, my father would have said midway toward what is the most emotionally devastating finale of any cinema you could ever show me.
It takes longer to write about that pluperfect sight gag than to see. A man in millionaire’s duds is driving a millionaire’s snazzy convertible Rolls Royce down Fifth Avenue. He hungers for a cigarette. A second man just some anonymous bypasser tosses away the cigarette he’s been smoking. Scurrying into the scene to reach for it is a third man, a ragged New York City bum. He all but has the butt in his fingers when the dude in the Rolls jams on the brakes, leaps out of the car, snatches the still lit cigarette out from under the grasp of the bum, pops it between his own lips, leaps back into the vehicle, and buzzes off leaving the camera to stare for four or five full seconds at the bum staring with incredulity at the fast disappearing Rolls.
What we know, and the bum doesn’t know, is that the cigarette-snatcher at the wheel of the Rolls is himself a bum of first order, or in Chaplin’s genteel lexicon, a tramp the Little Tramp that is raggedy, derby-tipping, cane-swaggering, Charlie Chaplin’s alter ego through all his masterpieces long or short from Mack Sennett’s workshop up to the beginning of sound.
And what we also know is that the Little Tramp has been taken under the wing of the millionaire (actor Harry Myers) whenever the millionaire is blind drunk only to be tossed out into the street at the light of dawn and that is why Charlie at the moment is wearing the millionaire’s clothes and driving the millionaire’s car.
What we further know is that, partly because of those clothes and that car but mostly because of the astonishing sweetness and courtliness of the Little Tramp who has fallen head over heels in love with a woman for what may be the first time in his life the blind flower-selling girl who is the object of that love “sees” her suitor as a handsome beau brummel in fine clothes who buys flowers from her by the bucket-load, and drives her places in that ritzy car, and pays the past-due rent on her and her grandmother’s tiny apartment, and ultimately pays for the trip to Vienna for the operation that will restore her sight
All this to sub-Noel Coward music by Chaplin that will also melt your veins …
When you are not collapsing in laughter at Charlie the connoisseur of fine art trying to not let us see his gawking at a nude female statuette in a shop window, Charlie and the ever-unwinding spaghetti, Charlie and the strand of his underwear that the blind girl is winding into her darning skein, Charlie the discombobulated white wing (i.e., street cleaner) with pail and broom as the elephant lumbers by, Charlie tiptoeing past any and every cop or tough guy with a quick, subliminal tip of the derby. Charlie disposing of another cigarette with a backward kick of the heel as he’s escorted into jail …
Speak of your choreography
And then there’s this: “City Lights,” which is a movie about love, man/woman love, by a supreme artist who in fact loved a lot of young women and got in deep trouble in a prudish era because of it, is also more than I think I ever before realized a movie full of homosexual hints and jests and allusions and take-offs, from the opening sword-thrust up Charlie’s pants by the Civic Virtue statue to the moment in the boxing-club dressing room where terror-stricken, near-naked Charlie tries to vamp his killer opponent with seductive knees and elbows pinched in a la come-hither schoolgirl or chorus girl or prostitute, take your pick.
So flagrantly indeed that that tough-guy opponent ostentatiously goes behind a curtain to change from pants to trunks. None of this feigele stuff for him, thank you.
And then, of course, whirligig Charlie wins the fight by skillfully keeping the referee in the middle between a huge flurry of punches. Choreography!
Wins the fight to get the money to pay the girl’s grandma’s $22 back rent. The $1,000 to send the girl to Vienna for that operation takes a little more doing hugger-mugger with a couple of burglars in the middle of the night in the millionaire’s town house.
Which gets Charlie into jail, and ousted from jail, down and out, broke, unemployed, shuffling and shabby and the target of two oafish young newsboys torturing him with their pea-shooters.
I once had the opportunity to interview Robert Parish, who played one of those newsboys. He told me what it was like. Chaplin himself had come into Parish’s school, looking for the type he wanted. He picked Parish and one other kid. Then, on the day of shooting, he showed Parish and the other boy what he wanted them to do.
“First he stood there as Charlie, his back to the flower-store window. Then he ran around and became us with our pea-shooters. He showed us how he wanted us to do that. Then he ran back and became Charlie again. And then us again. And so on. Over and over. Until we had it.”
Then the Little Tramp bends to pick up a crumpled flower from the gutter, and turns his back on the newsboys, and sees . . .
But no one has ever described this better than James Agee in his magnificent 1949 essay for Life magazine on “Comedy’s Greatest Era.” So let him tell it to us again now:
At the end of “City Lights” the blind girl who has regained her sight, thanks to the Tramp, sees him for the first time. She has imagined and anticipated him as princely, to say the least; and it has never seriously occurred to him that he is inadequate. She recognizes who he must be by his shy, confident, shining joy as he comes silently toward her. And he recognizes himself, for the first time, through the terrible changes in her face. The camera just exchanges a few quiet close-ups of the emotions which shift and intensify in each face. It is enough to shrivel the heart to see, and it is the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies.
The blind flower girl who regains her sight is the actress Virginia Cherrill. I can see why the Tramp fell instantly in love with her. I myself have been in love with her for most of the years of my own life. I would have told you, Edward, on that Saturday afternoon, had you asked. But I was crying.
CITY LIGHTS. Written and directed (1931) by Charles Chaplin. 89 minutes. Through January 1 at Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, (212) 727-8110.