It's easy to forget exactly how painted into a corner Charlie Chaplin was before City Lights was released. The birth of sound in motion pictures three years earlier caused shifting values of importance in Hollywood, and few had more to lose than Chaplin. This was a man whose silent films featuring his Little Tramp character—while iconic for their time—risked becoming anachronistic, relics representing the Hollywood model before “talkies” came along.
Chaplin could have folded his hand, but instead he doubled down. City Lights was defiantly a silent film, with its director mocking the usage of sound as early as its opening scene: when a politician stands up to the podium to speak of a great monument resembling peace and prosperity, out of his mouth we hear a robotic squeal. Conventional wisdom tells us that when a man goes blind, he improves his hearing. In Chaplin’s case, avoiding dialogue encourages us to focus on the images. If a genuine human voice isn’t heard in the film, genuine pathos is evident. Chaplin showed us that he didn’t have to go through our ears to get to our heart.
As his movie nears to a close, the Tramp, recently released from jail, is at his lowest point. He is destitute and homeless. It’s easy to speculate that Chaplin’s real-life dilemmas informed this scene. In addition to the professional challenges of sidestepping the pressures to make a sound film, he’d recently been through a divorce that endangered his personal reputation, with his ex-wife selling stories to tabloids describing his infidelities. His finances were also in jeopardy, the slapstick sensei owing the IRS $1.6 million in taxes. It’s possible that Chaplin’s divine inspiration for City Lights may have been just to keep the lights on.
Roger Ebert said that Chaplin’s films were “not just a work, but a place.” I’d like to believe that they are the dwellings of his biggest hopes and fears. In City Lights’ grand finale, we see the Tramp reuniting with the formerly blind flower salesgirl –- a girl that the Tramp had misled into thinking he was wealthy, when he actually stole the money to pay for the operation that cured her. When he asks her, “Can you see now?” the question is raised with sharp duality. Would the blind flower girl still love the Tramp, even though he is not the rich man she assumed him to be? And on a broader scale, would we, the audience, be able to love Charlie Chaplin the person, even as he swam against the current trend of sound in movies, and had his messy divorce on public display?
But we probably don’t ask ourselves those questions, at least not in a logical sense. Instead, we allow ourselves to indulge in the heat of the moment, the girl’s exasperated realization as she hands the Tramp back his flowers that he is her mysterious benefactor; the Tramp’s million dollar smile when he sees her feelings for him are requited. Speech would be superfluous, as it would require us to analyze something that was meant only to envelop our emotional canal. Ironically, Chaplin encouraged this sentiment nine years later in his first true talking picture, The Great Dictator. “Sometimes we think too much and feel too little.”