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Chaplin's "Lights" still shines.

THIS YEAR IS THE 75TH anniversary of Charlie Chaplin's celebrated "City Lights" (1931), the film with possibly cinema's most memorable concluding scene. Film critic James Agee would accord the segment just that honor in his 1949 Life essay, "Comedy's Greatest Era." Agee's description of the poignant conclusion, where the once-blind flower girl finally sees Chaplin's romantically frustrated Tramp figure and finds him wanting, also has a poetry of its own: "He recognizes himself, for the first time, through the terrible changes in her lace. The camera just exchanges a few 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."

What makes the "City Lights" conclusion the definitive example of comedy segueing to pathos? Well, Chaplin had been working toward this sort of tour de force ending for years. A special comedy component of the Chaplin milieu always had been as a caretaker for vulnerable young heroines who often later broke his heart. Ironically, Chaplin's leading lady from "City Lights" is not lost to an Arrow Shirt type hero, a la the young man of "The Tramp" or the equally dashing aerial artist of "The Circus" (1928). The Charlie of "City Lights" is competing with his own creation--the blind girl thinks her benefactor is a handsome young millionaire. The Tramp allows this innocent misperception to stand. Indeed, Chaplin tweaks his perennial outsider into the most unselfish of saviors. Falling in love with a beautiful blind girl, Chaplin moves the proverbial heaven and Earth to acquire the necessary cash for a sight-producing operation. While his assorted odd jobs, from street sweeper to boxer, do not pan out, his sometimes friendship with a forgetful millionaire (who only remembers the Tramp when he has been drinking) proves more profitable, but there is an unfortunate catch. Shortly alter receiving the money, an unrelated robbery attempt at the millionaire's mansion makes it appear that Charlie is a thief. Though Chaplin's underdog initially escapes and gets the operation funds to Virginia Cherrill's blind girl character, he ultimately is caught and does jail time.

Now, flash forward to sometime in the future. The Tramp is just out of prison, and he has not looked so bedraggled since his Mack Sennett beginnings (1914). The blind girl is not at her normal flower-selling location, but one knows she is on his mind because of the attention Chaplin gives a discarded flower in the street. Put upon by some thoughtless pea-shooting newsboys, the Tramp accidentally finds himself on the street which houses Cherrill's new florist shop. The comic altercation between Chaplin and the newsboys amuses the now obviously sighted flower girl, who views the Tramp through the plate glass window of her shop. Still clutching the flower, often symbolic of the fragility of life and love in the Chaplin world, Charlie suddenly sees Cherrill and is frozen in place. He is overjoyed that she can see, yet overwhelmed about what this means for them. While Chaplin envisions yet another idealized heroine on a 19th century romanticized pedestal, Cherrill and her assistant see only a laughable hobo apparently smitten by her beauty. They even kid about a "conquest." Worse yet, Cherrill expresses her pity by offering the Tramp a coin and a fresh flower. Embarrassed, Charlie shakes off his shock and starts to move away. Cherrill, however, comes into the street and manages to stop the Tramp, placing a coin and a flower in his hand. This is a brilliant stroke by Chaplin, since this touch allows the once blind girl to realize the Tramp is her benefactor.

Now it is Cherrill's turn to be shocked. "You?" she hesitantly asks. Giving her a humiliated smile, Chaplin answers with a nod. Still finding the scene hard to comprehend, the Tramp has to ask via a title, "You can see now?" Responding as if in a stupor, yet looking directly into Charlie's sad eyes, she dully states, by way of a title, "Yes, I can see now." In a series of closeups between the two, the camera ultimately stays on the Tramp. The haunting image of his lace is the picture of pathos--the difficult smile that somehow acknowledges that this romance certainly is at an end.

Over a quarter-century later, Chaplin told The New York Times that take after take of this scene had resulted in it being "overdone, overacted, over-felt." The winning result was a product of metaphorically taking himself out of the scene, playing it as the compassionate director: "This time I was looking more at her [Cherrill], interested to see that she didn't make any mistakes. It was a beautiful sensation of not acting, of standing out side myself. The key was exactly right--slightly embarrassed ... apologetic without getting emotional about it. He was watching and wondering what she was thinking ... 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."

Despite the apparent feelings of Cherrill's character's at the picture's close, the ambiguous, open-ended quality of the conclusion makes "City Lights" all the more attractive to a realist, too. Ambiguity is synonymous with existence itself--multiple meanings to a given experience. So little in life is cut and dried. Of course, besides appealing to realists, this element of hope also is alluring to romantics. However one "reads" the close to "City Lights," it demonstrates what New Yorker critic Anthony Lane calls the challenge Chaplin most relished--to "make an adventure out of a sermon." That is, the ending is not so much about lost love, but rather a sacrifice (getting the blind girl an operation whatever the result) that elevates the human condition.

Wes D. Gehring, Associate Mass Media Editor of USA Today, is professor of film, Ball State University, Muncie, Ind., and author of Charlie Chaplin: A Bio-Bibliography.
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Title Annotation:REEL WORLD
Author:Gehring, Wes D.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2006
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