Academic journal article CineAction

Urban Entertainment: Charlie Chaplin's City Lights

Academic journal article CineAction

Urban Entertainment: Charlie Chaplin's City Lights

Article excerpt

Charlie Chaplin's City Lights [1931] was a highly successful, commercial release. It entertained audiences as well as pleased critics, and its box office revenues at the time of its release were in the many millions of US dollars. Thereafter, through re-releases beginning in the 1950s, it has become a "classic"--embalmed in its success and treated as a romantic valentine to which other filmmakers, most famously Woody Allen in Manhattan [1979], have paid tribute. Yet in celebrating that romanticism, its admirers have often overlooked its critique of the capitalist politics of its time--a time not unlike today in its global financial crisis and the divide between haves and have-nots. If the personal is political, then it is no less true that the political is personal. Chaplin in City Lights comments upon the socially destructive and self-justifying cliche that "it's just business."

Created by Chaplin, who served as producer, director, screenwriter, actor and composer, the film simultaneously depicts Chapin's Tramp as an innocent pre-adult, documents its then "modern times" as a time of material progress reflected in the money that its urban citizens enjoyed in the midst of the Great Depression, and is infused with a nostalgia for a pre-industrial, rural state in which the movies played no part. Chaplin had originated his character of the Tramp in the short Auto Races at Venice [1914] and, thus, his Tramp pre-dated the Hollywood studio era in which the so-called studios, such as MGM, Paramount and Warner, were more akin to factories than workplaces for artists. In fact, Chaplin early on exercised control over all aspects of the Tramp's persona. With the exception of one silent feature film, A Woman of Paris [1923], he wrote the screenplays and directed himself as the Tramp in all of his feature films beginning with The Kid [1921] and continuing through The Gold Rush [1925], The Circus [1928], City Lights, and Modern Times [1936]--and even returning to act the part of a vaudeville comedian reminiscent of the Tramp but past his time in Limelight [1952]. In this last film he famously shares several scenes with Buster Keaton. Keaton is the silent comedian whom contemporary critics have largely favored over Chaplin, representing twentieth and twenty-first century modernism and displaying an emotional coolness in contrast to Chaplin's nineteenth century Victorianism and sentimentality. The critical preference for Keaton over Chaplin implicitly favors the contemporary, urban world of machinery and technology, to which Keaton consistently conforms, over a mythical, rural past in which nature and the isolation of its residents predominate. Chaplin is as out of date historically as Karl Marx or at least as perceived by such cultural critics as Walter Benjamin and Frederic Jameson. Postmodern capitalism has rendered no longer relevant Marx's enlightenment-formed view of history.

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No Chaplin film more poignantly illustrates the allure of the rural past than City Lights, a "silent" film released several years after "talkies" had come to dominate the mass medium of movies. Chaplin invested nearly $2 million of his own money and spent close to 3 years producing the film. He then released City Lights through United Artists, the studio that Chaplin had formed in 1919 together with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith and which, in contrast to the major studios, distributed but had no factory system to produce its movies. The title and the opening shot of City Lights recall F. W. Murnau's Sunrise [1927], an ode to country life in which The Man is nearly ensnared by the possessive Woman from the City. Like Murnau's film, Chaplin's film, too, shows us the bright lights and excitement of the city, but its narrative arc begins in the city, not the country, and concludes with separate shots of his characters supposedly in love. While identified by Chaplin as a "comedy romance in pantomime" and infused with the melodrama of the Tramp sacrificing himself for a Blind Girl (Virginia Cherrill), the film is premised upon parallels and contrasts resulting in the laying bare of the social codes that define the urban world in which the Tramp finds himself. …

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