The Easter Sunday Intertitle: Not One Word

But He answered him not one word, so that the governor marveled greatly.

Matthew, 27:14
Charles Spencer Chaplin turned 133 yesterday, and he's looking very good on it I think we can agree.

By the time of CITY LIGHTS, Chaplin knew a lot about storytelling. The film’s climax demonstrates both his precision and his looseness. The introduction of a gang of burglars (including supporting clown, gag man and assistant director Albert Austin in his final screen appearance) is certainly loose, even sloppy. Though burglars certainly belong to the kind of world Chaplin portrayed, in classical Hollywood narrative one would normally want to set them up in advance of using them. Strictly speaking, anything you use in the third act ought to have been set up in acts one or two.

But the key element in the climax is the drunken millionaire, who HAS been set up, and developed, in acts one AND two. After his defeat in the ring, Charlie bumps into his old sometime friend, who happens to be cheerfully plastered, and his problems seem solved. Of course, Charlie mistrusts this good luck, and he’s right to do so. The first time the drunk sobered up into a stranger, it was a surprise. The second time, it was still unexpected for Charlie, but established a pattern which he now imagines could be repeated. Important to get the cash from him as soon as possible. But he still lapses into complacency. What could possibly go wrong?

The fact that a random burglary happens that very night is used as the necessary complication, Wild coincidence, Vince Gilligan has compellingly argued, is acceptable if it makes the protagonist’s situation WORSE. Chaplin also takes care to establish the burglars already in the house when Charlie and his sometime friend arrive.

So, the burglars result in the police being called, and the millionaire being knocked out, and it turns out a blow on the head can sober you up — his alcoholic blackouts have behaved much like movie amnesia anyway, so this seems logical enough. So the money has been produced and even given to Charlie — he can regard it as rightfully his — but neither the donor nor the cops (idiots right out of Keystone) nor the disapproving butler recognise Charlie’s ownership. So stealing the dough is fully justified… leaving aside the morality of accepting large cash gifts from a man who’s drunk out of his senses. Well, he won’t miss it, and Virginia Cherrill’s blind girl needs it more than he does…

Charlie gets away with the cash, delivers it, and is then arrested. The parting scene is beautiful, and Chaplin posing himself by the phonograph seems somehow symbolic. Charlie is going away for a while, and the reason is — the reproduction of sound.

Chaplin also understood that a story can’t just reach a climax and then stop. If the story is really about something, some kind of coda is needed. This should probably be brief, but it’s essential. It’s where the story gets to establish what it’s really been about.

There follows a time-lapse — fluttering calendar pages. The title cards at the start of the film all said things like MORNING and AFTERNOON. Now we jump from January to AUTUMN. Walter Kerr, in The Silent Clowns, picks up on what’s different here. Charlie, emerging from prison, seems broken. He walks haltingly, almost limping (the return of the old wound from THE TRAMP?) He has no reserve of bravado or superiority to draw upon when dealing with the nasty newsboys (who WERE established earlier). He is as low as we’ve ever seen him.

His downward trajectory has been matched by the no-long-blind girl’s upward one. She now has her own flower shop (were there a few bucks left over from the money Charlie got her?). She can see. But when she sees Charlie being humiliated by the kids, she laughs. We’re being set up for tragedy.

Throughout the story, especially as soon as the prospect of a cure for her blindness was introduced, the tension created by Charlie’s fake rich man act has been felt. He couldn’t have maintained this illusion forever. And certainly with vision restored, his love would see through the pretence.

What’s needed is a miracle, which Chaplin provides. Not entirely as callous as the rest of the world which she’s been able to join, Cherrill’s character — after a brief interaction through the shop window, which serves as a barrier to dialogue, she decides to replace Charlie’s boutonnière, which, like the rest of his costume, is disintegrating.

Handing him the flower causes their fingers to touch, which is the rational part of what happens. The rest is done by their eyes. Charlie’s eyes convey so much love here: she senses that she’s been looked at this way before. She recognises him.


And then, “You can see now?” and “Yes, I can see now.” An intertitle that carries two distinct meanings (at least) — the now refers, mundanely, to post-operation sight, and transcendental, to NOW, right now. She can see now what she couldn’t see moments ago. The truth was concealed behind what was visible. The hero was really a poor tramp but actually a hero.

Frederic Raphael says that the unique quality of cinema is that it can end a story with a look. Chaplin most often uses the traditional long shot, the archetypal walk off into the sunset, which he could practically establish copyright ownership of. But here he uses a closeup. As Kerr says, it’s one of those endings you can’t project forward. Depending on your personality, you may feel that this couple face insuperable difficulties, or that everything has been resolved happily ever after. It’s a transcendentally happy ending, but what does it promise? I think we feel everything will be OK. We are in the presence of love. But the details are not explained, that would ruin it.

Chaplin’s son Sydney tried to explain the emotional power of this scene, and words quite literally failed him. “It’s murder,” he managed. That doesn’t quite cover it, is somewhat grotesquely inadequate. But words are, in the presence of pantomime raised to an art form, inadequate things. Still, the situation, and the perfect closeups, do get a boost by the perfectly chosen words Chaplin puts in the title cards.

You can see now, Yes, I can see now.

9 Responses to “The Easter Sunday Intertitle: Not One Word”

  1. bensondonald Says:

    Also the touch of her gently luring him back with a coin, as if coaxing a shy mongrel with a treat. As a flower girl she was just a step above a panhandler; now that she’s in a position to be generous she’s happily insistent on being so. Even though she initially regards him as a joke (“I’ve made a conquest.”), she’s determined to offer kindness rather than ignore or shoo away this eyesore in front of her shop.

    Whatever happens next, Chaplin wants us to see she’s a good person and not merely a pretty one — in other words, worthy of his sacrifice. In earlier days, Edna was usually lost to him when an imposture was exposed, but it often reflected badly on her. She was made shallow or snobbish, and the end would be played for pathos or a How-Do-Ya-Like-THAT gag.

    Sudden thought: Charlie is Cyrano de Bergerac AND Christian, the the poet hiding behind a facade and the facade knowing what he is.

  2. Beautiful.

    This being Easter Sunday, I note that Chaplin once evinced an enthusiasm about playing Jesus in a film. “I’m perfect casting: I’m a Jew, I’m an atheist…” Of course, we know now he wasn’t Jewish, though the FBI believed it. It was commendable of him to never deny it.

  3. This was SO beautiful. I’ve only seen City Lights once. It was my introduction to silent film. The genre itself is a bit of an acquired taste, and I’m still learning to appreciate it. But the love story here was definitely worth it – and you did such a lovely job of describing exactly why it is and adding even more meaning to it than I’d realized upon first watch. It’s such a profound little film, and their love is so pure. <3 I want to see it again and re-read your post right before I do. :)

    Also, “cheerfully plastered” – ha! :) And “idiots right out of Keystone” – ha ha! :D

    Your choice to begin with Scripture caught my attention. I guess the connection is the powerful impression that can be made without making a sound?

  4. I didn’t quote “I was blind but now I can see” but in searching for Easter themed quotes about prison, I found the one I used. It seemed to chime with his refusal to use spoken dialogue.

    I can well imagine Charlie in the police station: “So you won’t talk, eh?”

  5. Just to include all the world’s religions so that the Tramp would smile, I’ve always thought of City Lights–with the flowers, absent senses and the silent close up as the transmission of wisdom which in Zen tradition was transmitted when the Buddha held up a single flower.

  6. That’s lovely!

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