City Lights (1931)

Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (1931) presents a portrait of humanity that expands and challenges even the most savvy viewer. The story follows Chaplin’s Little Tramp character, a man without material resources, yet who shows himself to be the most resourceful character in the film. Early on, he meets a blind flower girl and falls in love with her. They have very little in the way of conversation, but she mistakenly believes him to be a rich man. He doesn’t correct her, enjoying the idea of living well, even if only in the fantasy of another person. Eventually the Tramp learns that she and her family are in dire financial straits and through a friendship with a wealthy man, the Tramp is able to help the girl with her troubles and even help her to regain her sight when he pays for an operation.

In the final scene in the film, the Tramp reveals himself to the girl for the first time. He is vulnerable and unsure of what she’ll think of him as a poor man. She is about to receive knowledge that will change her world forever. Upon seeing the Tramp with her newly seeing eyes, she no longer sees in him what she wants to see. Instead, she sees what actually is—a poor man who sacrificed a great deal that a blind girl he barely knew might see. This moment of revelation challenges each of them to live in the world that is, rather than the invented one they had enjoyed.

In this film, the revelation works on a dual level. The characters in the film receive their own challenging disclosure as they reveal themselves to one another. But the audience sees as well. The final sequence begins some months after the Tramp provided the money for her operation. They have not seen each other since. The first shot is of the girl busily working in a flower shop, arranging flowers in a pot, checking her hair in a mirror, and talking with a woman in the shop. The image is all life and joy, the girl’s brisk movement contrasting so strongly with her relative stillness before she could see.

The film then cuts to a long shot of the Tramp. His torn pant legs are clearly visible. A busy street in the background contrasts strongly with the lonely sidewalk he meanders down. He stands in the spot where he used to meet the girl, where she sold her flowers. Earlier in the film, when he encountered her there, the image was warm, immediate, and joyful. Now, with only he and the imposing stone and iron fence, the image is cold, distant, and isolated.

The film then returns to the shop, where a rich man in a top hat walks in. The flower girl’s face lights up with the prospect that this may be the man. Seeing the loneliness and longing is different than hearing about it. There is less limitation in the image than if she had also voiced her thoughts. Without those words, the film invites the audience to fill in the girl’s thoughts and feelings. We become participants in this moment, bringing our thoughts and feelings to bear on this encounter that’s about to happen. In these ways, the film is disclosing something to us about the way the world is, a truth that simply cannot be communicated through mere propositions in dialogue.

Finally, the two come together, first with a lengthy sequence out in front of the shop while the Tramp still doesn’t know the girl works there. Chaplin keeps the Tramp turned away from the shop, and while shooting in a wide shot with the girl in the background watching him, audience expectation rises. Now, for the first time, we sense a palpable hope for their future that before had seemed little more than a distant dream—for who would ever marry a Tramp? On more than one occasion, it looks as if the Tramp will walk by without ever turning to see her (only he knows what she looks like), Chaplin playing this moment for maximum effect.

As the Tramp turns and sees her for the first time, he stands speechless for some time while she offers him a flower, and then money (due to his poor appearance). As she gives him the flower and then the coin, she takes his hand. It is only then she sees, using one of the senses that was available to her prior to her operation—touch. As this reunion takes place without the benefit of hearing the words, the film points the viewer to focus exclusively on their faces. Chaplin’s keen sense of rhythm allows him to build a sense of anticipation and eagerness. Further, he brings the camera increasingly closer to the action throughout this final sequence, the frame serving as a magnifying glass on this most remarkable transformation.

All true revelation sets forth a challenge. This sequence offers just such a test in its portrayal of this meeting. Of course, the challenge depends to some degree on the individual—this gets at the openness of images and their ability to speak to a variety of situations and circumstances. At its heart though, this sequence challenges the viewer to see these individuals as fully-formed human beings. The film as a whole does this as well, but here the stakes are raised. In this sequence, we see the realities of despair and loneliness, both in the Tramp as well as the flower girl. We see the awkwardness of vulnerability, the difficulty of living more openly and honestly with another human being. And finally we see love’s beauty, the power of true, selfless affection to bring people together—even people who might for some reason or another be considered “disappointing.” Chaplin and his camera bring us from the pits of despair and loneliness to the joy of loving and being loved. These two “undesirable” characters, people many might be tempted to scoff at or pass by without noticing, have become people we care about and cheer for. We talk all day about the movement from despair to love. In City Lightswe see that movement played out before our eyes in truly revelatory fashion.

Monsieur Verdoux (1947)

Chaplin’s first true “talkie” in both sound and style, Monsieur Verdoux also marks the first time he officially abandons the Little Tramp character he made famous. Yet “abandons” may not be quite the right word, for Chaplin himself embodies the Tramp, even as this new character of Verdoux leaves those old outward cues behind.Monsieur Verdoux takes Chaplin as actor to an unfamiliar role, that of a murderous bigamist, a mantle his Depression-era character takes on after losing his job of thirty years as a bank clerk. Henri Verdoux visits his wife and child regularly, but not often enough for them, as they complain about his always being away on business. Of course, his business is of a most unseemly and time consuming nature: he marries rich widows, fleeces them for their money, and then kills them.

The film represents a development away from the unbridled optimism of Chaplin’s old screen persona, all the while retaining (though sublimating) the same boisterous charm and playfulness of that former character. This leaves the distinct impression of both continuity and discontinuity with Chaplin’s previous work. Echoes of the earlier films are apparent, notably when the Tramp’s coy, playful smile makes an appearance in a rowboat with one of his wives.

Such continuity is evident from the first few lines of narration as the film opens. Verdoux offers a brief history of himself, finally commenting that to do what he does, one must fundamentally be an optimist. In other words, he has bought into the prevailing mindset of the modern world: the belief in undying progress and the advancement of mankind. Even at this early stage of the film, it’s clear Verdoux sees himself as an extension of the modern age.

Yet in that opening scene, with narration peppered with optimism and hope, the “new Charlie” makes his first appearance, albeit at this moment, only as director. While his words are punctuated with optimism, the image before us is one of a graveyard. We even see Verdoux’ gravestone. We know he speaks to us as a dead man, much like William Holden’s young writer will do three years later in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. Like Wilder’s critique of the Hollywood machine, Chaplin uses this imagery to undercut the optimism of the modern age in the first few frames of the film.

The sense of discontinuity only grows throughout the film, as more and more of this character becomes clear. It’s still Charlie, but he’s changed. That paradox is beautifully contained in the stunning final image, one of Verdoux walking away from the camera, in handcuffs, on the way to execution. For anyone familiar with his work, that scene evokes the final image of Modern Times, where the Tramp and the Gamin walk away, arm in arm, into the sunset. The latter image is filled with hope and determination as they head off toward their destiny. In Verdoux, destiny surely lies ahead, but this time it is one of death and destruction.

Despite the wonders of his earlier work (City Lights and Modern Times are brilliant) the discontinuity present in Verdoux takes the film to a new level. Not only does it breathe new life into Chaplin’s onscreen persona, but it traverses new ground by examining the dark underbelly of a Depression-era, Capitalist, and warmongering society. Verdoux makes it clear that such things matter, not just on the stage of world diplomacy and economics, but in deeply personal ways as well. These commitments change the structure of society, thereby affecting its people. On the one hand, they bring a surface level optimism and hope for the future – people are thinking about what can be accomplished. But on the other, such commitments work against that hope in the dark corners of our cities and people. In light of this, one wonders with Verdoux what good it is to gain the whole world, if we lose ourselves in the process.