Limousine Love

The fact that it took Chaplin a year of filming to figure out a way to make the blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) in CITY LIGHTS mistake the Tramp for a millionaire just gets more incredible when you realise that Chaplin had already solved the problem, back in THE IDLE CLASS. He did it with a car door, with the Tramp chortcutting through a limo. That was ten years before — did Charlie eventually remember how he did it, or did he never remember it, and come up with the idea again, as if from scratch?

(In THE IDLE CLASS, Charlie cuts through the back of a limo and, emerging at a costume ball, is naturally mistaken for a toff disguised as a tramp. So it’s not exactly the same gag — he had to get the idea of using the sound of the car door, not a natural notion for a silent filmmaker. And, though I continue to argue that CITY LIGHTS is a sound film but not a talkie, Chaplin tells us he thought of it as a silent. That category error may have got in his way. And, though I’ve said that very many situations in the film depend on sound, this scene is treated silent — the flower girl hears the car door, but we don’t.)

It’s all the more remarkable given that he had gag writers — here credited as assistant directors, Albert Austin and Henry Bergman. Maybe he’d been resisting the idea of repeating himself, but the use he makes of the misunderstanding here is so different, it hardly makes you think the less of him. I feel if he’d called the idea to mind earlier, he’d have used it without hesitation, since he was going through hell trying to solve the problem — and putting everyone else through hell — “I was a terror to be with” — and spending his own money.

The end result repays the agonies everyone endured. Having seen Georgia Hale’s screen test for the part, and admired it, I can’t say that she’s better than Cherrill, whose lack of experience gives her playing an innocence. It’s what Chaplin wanted — not an actor, a pure medium to transmit his own ideas into performance.

How the girl gets accidentally fooled is clever. How Charlie gets hooked is equally smart, and doesn’t get talked about. Having realised that she’s misunderstood who he is, and that she thinks he’s left without waiting for his change, he can’t bring himself to disappoint and disillusion her. Therefore he gives up his change, which he really needs — the fingers are coming off his gloves — and tiptoes away, like the amphibian removals men of TWO MEN AND A WARDROBE. So he’s committed to maintaining the illusion. It must feel good. He’s just been publically shamed at the monument unveiling, humiliated by news boys and intimidated by a typically gigantic antagonist. Now he’s met somebody who admires him.

Chaplin said it was always a challenge to find a way to get a romance going with the Tramp, since women don’t usually list indigence as a trait they look for in a partner. But having her simply ignorant of who he is was an inspiration that arrived quite indirectly.

In My Autobiography, Chaplin describes his initial idea, “a clown who, through an accident at the circus, has lost his sight. He has a little daughter, a sick, nervous child, and when he returns from the hospital the doctor warns him that he must hide his blindness from her until she is well and strong enough to understand, as the shock might be too much for her. His stumbling and bumping into things make the girl laugh joyously. But that was too ‘icky’.”

It certainly was. Though you can feel something of Chaplin’s enthusiasm for the idea lingering, decades later. Sometimes, we’re told, his assistants could talk him out of an overly sentimental idea by expressing open revulsion: I suspect that was the case here.

The idea may have been influenced by another source: Josef Von Sternberg had been taken under Chaplin’s wing after smuggling a print of his no-budget debut feature, THE SALVATION HUNTERS, into CC’s screening room. The film starred Georgia Hale and was, in its way, somewhat Chaplinesque. It was planned that Sternberg would make a film for Chaplin, and he eventually did, the ill-fated A WOMAN OF THE SEA, but another project was envisaged first, a star vehicle for Mary Pickford. “It was called Backwash,” Sternberg tells us in his memoir, “and it concerned a blind girl and a deaf-mute, the subject to be visualized through the eyes of a girl who has never been able to see. […] One of the episodes concerned a visit to a Chaplin comedy by my underprivileged characters, and Mr. Chaplin had agreed to perform some distorted antics.”

So this may have influenced Chaplin — it seems more than likely. You could say he practically swiped Sternberg’s idea the way he later did Welles’ with MONSIEUR VERDOUX. Of course, his treatment of other people’s ideas makes them distinctly his own: we don’t see the blind girl’s distorted imaginings of what Charlie is like, instead we get to see him struggle to maintain her illusion, without the financial means.

At the end of the scene, after the girl thinks Charlie has driven away, he sneaks back to watch her. Voyeurism — and a fantasy — when she stares into space and he’s occupying that space, it looks like she’s looking at him, tenderly. Her lack of sight supplies him with something he lacks — the illusion of love. All this complex stuff is neatly deflated when she throws a plant pot full of water in his face. Chaplin usually knows when things are at risk of getting too serious too soon.

TO BE CONTINUED

5 Responses to “Limousine Love”

  1. Mark Fuller Says:

    It’s always a source of wonder that silent filmmakers and viewers seemingly ignored sound and assumed that the world in a silent film was actually silent.
    My favourite example is in a Doug Fairbanks short, American Aristocracy I think, where he sneaks up on kidnappers on a motor yacht by landing a floatplane besides it. Have you HEARD a 1910s aero engine ???

  2. You’re right about Cary Grant’s firstwife. She has aluminousness that the plucky GeorgiaHale lacks.

  3. Mark, you can see the same strange assumptions in sound film, where it’s sometimes assumed that anything out of shot is invisible and inaudible. This can be used comically but sometimes is applied even in serious films, thus twenty armed cops surround Ryan O’Neal in seconds in a deserted train station at the end of The Driver, and we’re not meant to wonder why he doesn’t hear them approach.

    I think Georgia Hale’s more conscious performance style is a very different thing from Cherrill basically mimicking Chaplin and doing as she’s told, but both are good. I wish there were more Georgia Hale star vehicles.

  4. bensondonald Says:

    A sentimental view of blindness, with a faint residue of Fleischer:

  5. Kind of icky… but unusually artistic!

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