December 27, 2012

Queer Review: City Lights (1931)

City Lights
Director: Charles Chaplin
Writers: Charles Chaplin, Harry Clive, and Harry Crocker
Cast: Virginia Cherrill, Florence Lee, Harry Myers, Al Ernest Garcia, Hank Mann, Charles Chaplin

City Lights, released in 1931, was the last major hurrah of the silent era. While Wings and The Artist are the only two "silent" films to ever win the Best Picture Oscar, City Lights shines out high above both of them.

The Tramp (Charles Chaplin) falls in love with the blind Flower Girl (Virginia Cherrill) but his lowly status makes it difficult for him to woe her. That is until he saves the live of an eccentric Millionaire (Harry Myers). Afterwards, the Millionaire takes the Tramp for a night out on the town and provides him with means for Tramp to woe the Flower Girl. Eventually though, the Tramp discovers the help of the Eccentric Millionaire is complicated by the fact that the Millionaire is only capable of recognizing the tramp at night when he's drunk. Thanks to the Millionaire's jealous boyfriend butler who refuses to help the tramp in any way, the Tramp is forced to seek other means to impress the Flower Girl.

The Queering
City Lights is primarily a straight romance, with Chaplin's well known brand of physical comedy providing comic relief. However, the relationship between the Tramp and the Eccentric Millionaire has such a strong queer subtext to it, that it at times threatens to become pure text. I realize that Chaplin's brand of physical comedy requires a lot of physical contact, but that only explains why the two are constantly grabbing and groping each other (and groping here does mean buttocks). I'll even go so far as to point out that the constant hugging the two engage could be chalked up to the relaxed rules regarding male affection of the 1920's and 30's

However one can only go so far with this line of thinking, for not only do the Millionaire and Tramp hold hands and kiss (in public no less!) but after one rambunctious party the two of them wind up in bed together, which of course infuriates the Millionaire's boyfriend butler. Furthermore, there's also the fact that the Millionaire's behavior closely mirrors that of a man suffering from internalized homophobia, which help explains why he wants to kill himself and why he only recognizes the Tramp at night, rather than during the day.

As for the Tramp, there is a scene where he attempts to raise money for the Flower Girl so she can pay her rent by participating in a boxing match. Prior to the start of the match, the Tramp flirts with his opponent so much, the other boxer goes behind a curtain to change.

Now admittedly, as I said before, the main story is about the Tramp trying to woo the Flower Girl and this material is presented as effectively as it can be. The ending is often cited as being one of the most emotional and moving in the history of cinema. It certainly makes for an interesting study in understatement. Personally, I wasn't that moved by it. Although that was probably due to me not only knowing what was going to happen but because I also had become more interested in the relationship between the Tramp and the Millionaire, which was abandoned somewhere between two-thirds to three-fourths through the film.

For lovers of classic cinema and silent films, this is highly recommended. Buy all the lights in your city if it is too dark to find your way to see City Lights

The Rating
*** out of ****


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