The 1930s were a watershed decade in the film history. The Jazz Singer had successfully merged sound with images, and the “talkies” were born. Suddenly, there was a new range of possibilities for this still-young medium – actors could talk and sing at liberty, a bustling crowd could sound like a bustling crowd, there were no more limitations. It was very exciting. That is, unless you were a silent film star worried about the transition.
Numerous matinee idols found themselves out of work when their acting abilities no longer were effective under these new standards. It was, to put it lightly, rather risqué if you were an established star. There was a lot to lose. And no one had as much to lose as Charles Chaplin, perhaps the biggest star in all of Hollywood. So expectations were understandably high for City Lights, his first film since the end of the silent era (and more so for his next film, Modern Times). But rather than having the iconic Tramp speak, Chaplin finds other ways to use sound in a film he subtitled “A Comedy Romance in Pantomime”.
Just to make the audience aware that he knows he can use sound if he wants to, Chaplin opens on a scene that seems to contain dialogue. A statue is unveiled, and who should be asleep under the sheet but the beloved Tramp? The removal of the sheet wakes him up and the various assembled dignitaries begin to yell at him for his transgression, but what comes out of their mouth isn’t so much language as it is a type of humming, buzzing gibberish. Think of it as a cross between a hive of bees and the adults in the Peanuts cartoons.
While slightly distracting, it’s clever in an Andy Kaufman sort of way. Somehow, I imagine Chaplin got a great amount of joy from filling the first few minutes of his first talkie with gibberish. If you listen closely, you can almost hear him laughing in the back of the theatre. Later, after the Tramp accidentally swallows a whistle, he comes down with a case of the hiccups. Every hiccup brings another shriek from somewhere in his windpipe, and since it seems to be bothering everyone else in the party, he goes outside, where he immediately attracts a pack of dogs.
Chaplin’s films often revolve around the plot of the Tramp somehow getting the girl, and City Lights is no different. On a maneuver around a police officer, the Tramp runs into a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) and is instantly, completely in love the way you can only fall in love in the movies. Since she can’t see him, she has no idea he is just a tramp, so when their paths cross again and the Tramp is borrowing the car of a millionaire, she assumes he is the millionaire. He maintains the charade long enough to provide her with enough money to cover her back rent and pay for a miraculous new surgery to cure blindness, but the police mistake him for a thief and he is arrested. It is, at the very least, a tragic tale.
Chaplin is known mostly for his unique blend of physical comedy. Take an early scene as an example. We are watching from inside a store as the Tramp admires a storefront display from the sidewalk. He has walked past a danger sign unaware and is standing directly in front of some sort of platform that is lowered down below the street and stops when it comes even with the sidewalk.
The Tramp paces the sidewalk in rhythm with the platform. He walks forward as it lowers, then backs up just to the edge–hovering there just long enough for the platform to come even with the street before finally stepping back. He does this a couple of times, never falling down the hole, but rather he’s standing on the platform when it makes a descent, much to his alarm. This all happens in one continuous shot. A lesser director would have shot it from several different angles, chopped it up, and finally had the Tramp fall down the hole. But Chaplin treats it as a high-wire act.
Part of what makes it so breathtaking is the fact that we see the whole thing, unedited. Much in the same way that Hitchcock gave his audience more information than he gave the characters to heighten the suspense, Chaplin puts the Tramp in a situation where we know that surely he’ll fall and we hold our breath, hoping he realizes just how close he is to danger. In these uncut routines (and especially in the boxing match), Chaplin treats his comedy like a ballet – the Tramp is dancing with danger (or the other fighter and the official), if you will. And the beauty of that dance is what keeps the Tramp beloved nearly a century later, perhaps more than the hat, the mustache, and the funny walk combined.
starring: Charles Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Harry Myers, Allan Garcia, and Hank Mann
Written and directed by: Charles Chaplin
NR, 87 min, 1931, USA
 He does this again in Modern Times when the Tramp is expected to speak but, instead, sings.