Charlie Chaplin is considered by many to be one of the most prominent figures in the history of motion pictures. He was one of the first Hollywood auteurs, retaining complete control over each of his films from inception to production. His films often dealt with very serious issues in a way that people could equally understand and enjoy. He did so through extraordinary filmmaking and wit. In discussing the style and form so masterfully employed by Chaplin, the film, City Lights, serves as an appropriate example of how Chaplin used the cinematic style of realism to connect to his audience. It also serves the purpose to show that, while Chaplin leaned toward realism in the scope of cinematic style, he did employ several techniques of formalistic cinematic style to make his statements more poignant. In City Lights, one of the themes that Chaplain seems to be commenting on is the dichotomy of appearance and reality. This theme lends itself well to Chaplain’s style of using both realistic and formalistic techniques to tell his story. Chaplain’s theme and style are both evident in one the most famous scenes from the film.
The afore-mentioned scene is the one in which the tramp first meets the blind girl who is selling flowers. In studying the scene one shot at a time, several of Chaplin’s themes from this film make themselves apparent. In the opening shot, Chaplin exits a car he has just jumped into to avoid a policeman. Upon exiting the car he begins walking away from the camera. The term used for this type of movement in the frame is known as movement “in depth.” This type of movement usually implies that the subject moving is losing power or significance. This fits in perfectly in this film since the character moving in depth is a tramp. He has little significance in the first place so showing him moving away from the camera adds to this understanding. In the same shot a young girl is visible far to the right of the frame. This positioning within the frame also implies an insignificance or marginality. We find out soon that this is a blind girl who is trying to sell flowers so again, the shot itself shows the viewer that each of the characters seen have little significance in the world around them. This shot is at an eye level angle even though she is seated, a technique typical of cinematic realism. The shot that follows is a close up of the young girl. She is in the center of the frame, no longer implying insignificance but implying she is quite normal, and is sitting in front of several vertical iron bars. This vertical design within the frame tends to signify stability. This shot again fits into the larger idea of what is happening in the film in that the viewer is shown that this girl is not, in fact, insignificant right as the tramp stops walking away and turns to look at her. The following shot is a medium shot of the tramp as he contemplates walking over to her. He is also in the middle of the frame suddenly moving him also from insignificance to normalcy. The scene returns to the close up of the girl trying to convince him to come over and buy a flower. The following shot is a medium shot of the tramp who then moves from the left side of the frame to the right towards the girl. This movement is perceived as being very easy and natural within the frame showing how the tramp feels comfortable approaching the girl, perhaps since each of them have been shown as equals in the fact that they are both insignificant. The next shot is a medium two shot of the girl and the tramp as he has now moved to directly in front of her.
This shot, as well as all of the others that have preceded it in the scene thus far, is very loosely framed and employs a very open form. Both of these aspects are typical of realistic filmmakers. Another realistic aspect is that all of the shots thus far in the scene have all been at an eye level angle, showing no bias for any single character so far. In this same shot the tramp is shown as standing while the girl is sitting down, making the tramp higher in the frame than the girl. This implies the dominance of the tramp over the girl or that he is somehow more important or powerful than she. The general attitude of the tramp is one of superiority as well. The framing of these shots along with the superb acting of Chaplain gives the viewer a visual oxymoron. Regardless of who the woman is, Chaplain’s character is a tramp and by all accounts should not be superior to anyone. Here is an instance of Chaplain toying with the theme of appearance and reality. Another aspect adding to the sense that the tramp is superior is the fact the tramp’s back is turned to the open sidewalk and street where the girl is up against a fence with no exit. Since the tramp is right in front of her, he successfully controls where she is able to move making her seem helpless. Another aspect that enters the scene is the presence of a section of the fence that is even further blocking in the girl, which is at a diagonal line. Diagonal lines in the frame imply instability or disorder. This is possibly an ominous foreshadowing that somehow this interaction may not be a good thing. It is the first implication that something is amiss in the scene.
Once the tramp selects a flower he accidentally knocks it out of the girl’s hand. This leads to the girl getting down on her knees to find the flower and pick it up. The shot that accompanies this action is one of the girl on her hands and knees with the lower portion of the tramp’s body in view to the left of the frame. This implies even more dominance and control of the tramp over the girl as does the angle of the shot. The shot is taken as if the viewer were a spectator standing up looking down on the girl. This shot even more shows the helplessness of the girl. When the girl asks if the tramp picked up the flower, the scene cuts to an eye level medium shot of the tramp with the girl’s head at the bottom of the frame. It almost goes without saying that the girl’s position in the frame implies powerlessness. The sharp diagonal angle of the fence is also very apparent in this shot at the right of the frame. It is at this point that the tramp realizes the young girl is blind. He leans down slightly, still maintaining his superiority within the frame and helps her stand up. The girl places the flower in his jacket pocket now only slightly lower in the frame at eye level with the diagonal line still apparent on the right hand side of the frame.
The girl returns to her seat after the tramp pays her, and the scene cuts to a long shot showing more of the scenery around the girl and the tramp including a man walking from right to left, a very unnatural direction, behind the two. The camera pans left to capture the man entering the car that the tramp had crawled out of at the beginning of the scene. When the camera pans, it keeps the tramp in the shot, at the right hand side of the frame, with the girl completely out of the shot. When the camera pans back to the original shot, the girl has mistaken the man for the tramp entering his car and leaving. When the girl asks the man she just sold a flower to, “Wait for your change, sir,” the shot returns to the shot of the two and again pans left with the tramp’s head looking at the car, which proceeds to leave the curb as the tramp realizes that the girl has mistaken him for the rich man entering the car and leaving. The camera pans back to the girl, hopelessly holding out the man’s change. She is still lower in the frame than the tramp and the camera is still viewing them from an eye level angle. The tramp, not wanting to reveal he is still standing there, tip toes away in depth of the camera and around the corner out of sight.
This part of the scene is the pivotal moment in the film concerning appearance and reality. The tramp realizes that his appearance means absolutely nothing to the girl since she cannot see which causes him to shake off his false superior attitude and be himself. In doing so, he is obviously becoming smitten with the young girl. The other thing that happens in this scene is that the girl is led to believe that the tramp is a rich man, a lie that the tramp wishes to encourage. In this single scene the audience sees how both characters are operating in appearances as opposed to reality.
The shot then shows the tramp in a medium shot to the left of the frame peering around the corner. There are many vertical lines apparent in the frame implying stability. He carefully turns the corner and sits at the far end of the ledge the girl is seated on while the camera pans to follow him. The camera pans to the girl seated on the same ledge next to the only diagonal line visible to the viewer by which she is leaning up against. The girl takes a plant out of its pot and walks from right to left out of the frame towards the tramp. This lateral movement within the frame is perceived as unnatural and again gives the viewer the impression something is possibly amiss with the girl. The scene then cuts to a medium shot of the girl filling up the pot with water at a small fountain directly next to where the tramp is seated. This shot is the first in which the girl is shown higher in the frame than the tramp. The tramp is now the one who has his back to the fence and is more entrapped than the girl. The girl fills up the pot, swirls the water around in it, and proceeds to dump the water off into the bushes beyond the fence which happens to be exactly where the tramp is seated. The tramp, now doused with water, quietly exits the frame from right to left, again appearing very unnatural and wrong in some way. This shot is very comical but it could also be another foreshadowing event. Once she does not know the tramp is around, she becomes the dominant figure and even literally discredits the tramp by throwing water in his face. Granted it is not perceived as intentional by the girl, but it does change the viewers perception about how helpless she really is. This part of the scene also may imply that what the viewer has been watching up to this point has been the appearance that each character is operating within. Once the tramp is perceived as gone by the girl, it is possible that the viewer then sees what the reality of the situation truly is. The scene ends by fading to black with the girl alone in the frame.
In viewing this scene it is apparent that Chaplin used mostly eye level angles, mostly long continuous shots, mostly shot at an eye level angle. The lighting is all very natural and does not draw any special attention and the form of the entire scene is very open with loose framing. By all definition this relates to the cinematic style of realism. This is an interesting factor when one of the major themes in City Lights is the theme of appearance versus reality. This theme is one of the the main questions in the film and Chaplin employs cinematic realism to offer what appears to be an objective environment in which the audience does not feel forced to lean one way or another. This means that every time one watches City Lights the outcome can be completely different each time which makes it a pure joy to watch.