My most recent book, Complete Film Criticism: Reviews, Essays, and Manuscripts, an edition of James Agee’s movie reviews, criticism, and commentary, is the fifth volume of the University of Tennessee Press’s series–the Collected Works of James Agee. A Knoxville native, Agee was also one of the first great movie reviewers in the U.S. Between 1942 and 1948 he reviewed movies both for The Nation and for Time magazine. In 1944 the British poet wrote The Nation to praise the “astonishing excellence” of Agee’s reviews, calling his column “the most remarkable event in American journalism today.” My collection constitutes the first time that all of Agee’s reviews for Time will appear in one volume. It will also include all the reviews in The Nation, all his other published articles on movies (like the famous “Comedy’s Greatest Era”), and a number of unpublished pieces housed in the Agee special collections at the University of Tennessee and the University of Texas at Austin.
My previous book is on Chaplin’s City Lights, written for the British Film Institute’s Film Classics series. The film was Chaplin’s fourth (of eight) United Artists feature film and his first to be released after the American film industry shifted to sound. The famous final shot of City Lights, reproduced on the cover of the book, thus stands–the the opening shot of Modern Times (1936)–at the precise center of Chaplin’s United Artists career, and some believe these to be Chaplin’s greatest films.
In his autobiography, Chaplin writes that City Lights was a difficult film for him to make. The production records bear this out: my book discusses the strains that the filmmaker faced as he conceived and made the film, which included the financial challenges that confronted Chaplin following his divorce from Lita Grey and his tax difficulties in 1927, as well as the aesthetic challenge posed by the emergence of the talkies while he was working on the movie. The book is in part a production history of the film, based on extensive research of Chaplin’s studio production records, which have recently come available to scholars at the Cineteca di Bologna in Italy.
Let’s start at the end. The final shots of Charles Chaplin’s City Lights (1931) constitute one of the most famous, memorable, and emotionally intricate endings of any movie in film history. In it Chaplin’s iconic tramp character has just been released from prison, falsely accused of stealing money from a millionaire. He has given that money to the blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill), with whom he has fallen in love, to pay for an operation. Returning that love, she also believes the tramp to be a wealthy benefactor. While he has been in prison, the flower girl has had surgery and, her sight restored, has opened a prosperous florist shop, hoping that her beloved will return to her. When the bedraggled Charlie happens by her shop, he spies her through the store window, first looks puzzled and surprised, then smiles. She’s amused at this tramp’s reaction, yet comes to the door of her shop to offer him a flower and a coin as he shuffles away, afraid that she might recognize him, might see him as he really is. As he reaches a hand back to her and she places the coin in his hand, she identifies the pitiable tramp as her benefactor. The framing tightens as shots of both characters respond to this shock of recognition. The last shot of the film, the tramp’s response to the flower girl’s acknowledgment that now she can see, is reproduced on the cover of this book.
This ending has entranced countless viewers around the globe since the film was released. It has also generated extensive commentary, perhaps none so memorable as James Agee’s reflections in his 1950 essay, “Comedy’s Greatest Era”:
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.”
Although Agee is, I believe, wrong in one detail–the flower girl first recognizes the tramp not through her sight but through touch, by grasping his familiar hand– he’s dead on target when he says that this ending “shrivels the heart.”
Chaplin himself knew that this was a special moment in a special film. Discussing the final shot in a 1967 interview with Richard Meryman, Chaplin recalled,
I had had several takes and they were all overdone, overacted, overfelt. This time I was looking more at her . . . . It was the beautiful sensation of not acting, of standing outside of myself. The key was exactly right–slightly embarrassed, delighted about meeting her again–apologetic without getting emotional about it. He was watching and wondering what she was thinking and wondering without any effort. It’s one of the purest inserts–I call them inserts, close-ups–that I’ve ever done. One of the purest.
By the end of his career, Chaplin prized City Lights. In 1973, Peter Bogdanovich asked Chaplin, “Which film of yours is your favorite? Can I ask you that? Or do you have no favorites?” Chaplin’s reply: “Oh, yes. I have. I like City Lights.”
Examining the favorite film of one of the cinema’s greatest figures may be reason enough to write about it. But there are other reasons. too. Commentators have long written about the long and difficult production of City Lights. As we shall see, a series of personal crises, industry shifts, and socio-cultural challenges combined to make this project a crucial one for Chaplin: the filmmaker himself noted that shooting took such a long time because he kept wanting to make the film perfect. Furthermore, because Chaplin’s surprisingly extensive production records are now available for scholars to examine at the Cineteca di Bologna, it is possible to trace with much more precision the production history of City Lights.
City Lights was a key transitional film for Chaplin–personally, aesthetically, and culturally. It was transitional because of the personal crises he endured just before and during the making of the film–his divorce from Lita Gray, his separation from his sons Sydney and Charles, Jr., and the death of his mother Hannah. It was transitional because of the aesthetic challenge of the film industry’s shift to talkies, which took place while he was making City Lights: a master of pantomimic silent film comedy, Chaplin had to decide how he would respond to the challenge of the recorded sound track. It was transitional, finally, because he made City Lights while American culture itself was coping with the Stock Market Crash, the end of the prosperity of the 1920s, and the beginnings of the downward economic spiral that resulted in the Great Depression.
Chaplin responded to these challenges with City Lights, and this book will look closely at the film, focusing on three concerns. I will first trace the production history of the film, as fully as is possible in a brief monograph, within the context of Chaplin’s career. Second, I will look closely at the film itself, probing how elements of narrative and cinematic style intertwine to communicate the film’s key themes and to evoke its powerful and complex range of emotions, culminating in a detailed examination of the final scene that may help us appreciate more fully Chaplin’s achievements. Finally, and more briefly, I will examine how audiences and commentators, in the original release and subsequently, have responded to Chaplin’s “Comedy Romance in Pantomime.”
1 I will refer to the character Chaplin plays in City Lights as “the tramp.” Chaplin’s comic persona in his movies is not always accurately called a tramp, and he’s sometimes been referred to as “Charlie.” Because he’s most often called “the tramp” in the script versions of City Lights, that’s the name I will use.
2 This essay originally appeared in the 3 September 1949 issue of Life. I’m quoting from James Agee, Film Writing and Selected Journalism (New York: The Library of America, 2005) 19.
3 Richard Meryman, “Ageless Master’s Anatomy of Comedy: Chaplin, An Interview,” Charlie Chaplin: Interviews, Kevin H. Hayes (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2005) 134. Chaplin’s memory seems to be good. The Daily Production Reports from the film indicate that Chaplin took seven takes (takes number 4328-4334) at the end of the day on September 22, 1930, ultimately using the final take in the film. More later on the Daily Production Reports.
4 Charles Chaplin interviewed by Peter Bogdanovich, February 8, 1973. Thanks to Jeffrey Vance for calling my attention to this interview. This confirms what Chaplin told Richard Meryman in a 1966 interview. Asked if he had a favorite, Chaplin chose City Lights. Selections from the Meryman interview are reprinted in Jeffrey Vance, Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003) 360–67, with the City Lights quotation on p. 367.
After the Agee project is out, I am–at the invitation of Progetto Chaplin and the Cineteca di Bologna–working on a production history of City Lights that will include reproductions of production records and production stills from the Chaplin Studio archives.