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Charlie’s Rude Awakening: The Problem with Class Consciousness in Chaplin’s City Lights

Charlie’s Rude Awakening: The Problem with Class Consciousness in Chaplin’s City Lights

George Porcari


All I need to make a comedy is a park, a policeman and a pretty girl.

Charlie Chaplin – My Autobiography


Despite Charlie Chaplin’s statement about his work, and the fact that City Lights (1931) does in fact have a park, several policemen and a pretty girl, this film places the issue of class front and center in its opening scene and then plays out that theme, in different variations, for 87 minutes. It begins with some pompous dignitaries in formal dress about to dedicate a larger-than life size neoclassical statue of three figures titled Peace and Prosperity. The officials consist of politicians, businessmen with their wives, and the police. This is clearly a good cross representation of the ruling class in the US and Chaplin beautifully uses them as one collective “straight man.” The crowd behind them – the “little people” – are there as a sounding board, amplifying and physically playing out the symbolic language of the assorted elites at the level of the street. They will presumably carry the message of peace and prosperity to those less fortunate who could not attend.

Peace and Prosperity is clearly an ironic title considering this was the second year of the Great Depression. It was also the era where war-drums from Europe had found their beat. The Nazis would take control of Germany within two years and start the war machinery rolling; the Japanese and the Italians had militarized, nationalist governments ready to use force to realize their economic and colonial ambitions; Spanish democracy was withering under the weight of fascist populism; and the Americans after WWI were ready to impose a new world order with themselves at the head of the table. Many writers, intellectuals, and analysts of the period realized it was only a matter of time before the festering aftermath of WWI exploded, bringing another world war. The thirties were in some respects similar to our era. It was a period defined by political polarization, instability, and rabid disparities of wealth and education; there was also a strong faction of nationalists spinning webs of fantasy, control, and power. This is the context in which Peace and Prosperity opens City Lights.

The statue in the film fits the traditional neoclassical aesthetic, an art form that comes ready made for autocrats and their cronies. That is why during revolutions those statues are among the first things to come down, to be set on fire, to be urinated on, or to be thrown in the nearest river. Peace and Prosperity presents a tableau with a soldier holding a sword while another man with a hand up signals peace; a young woman dressed in traditional Greek robes stands by ready to choose between her two suitors. The tableau espouses male heroism and reason balanced by the eternal mother/fertility goddess as provider, and arbiter, in harmonious balance – a pastiche of European sculpture from an earlier period.

The film was made four years after the advent of sound and is one of the last hybrid films that was shot as a silent with a soundtrack added later. In the early thirties sound and music were considered add-ons to the narrative and Chaplin was the first film artist to use sound creatively, re-articulating one of the conventions of music hall and vaudeville – the use of musical instruments to parody human folly. He does it by turning what Americans like to call the “boilerplate speech” into music. The society lady is “played” by a piccolo, the overbearing boss is “played” by a trombone, and the mayor is “played” by a kazoo – Chaplin brings that technique back for one final go-around before taking a bow.

Everyone is in polite mode, exaggerating their pretensions to good manners and the habits of the landed gentry. The mayor gives the official scissors for the ribbon cutting ceremony to a society lady while the actress playing her brilliantly satirizes the body language of a matron who is taken out of mothballs occasionally to perform in these ceremonies. She cuts the ribbon and the cloth covering the statue, resembling a curtain in a theater, goes up. But as the cloth is dramatically pulled away we see what the crowd sees, that Chaplin’s Tramp has been sleeping on one of the statues as the woman with her arms outstretched makes a perfect makeshift bed. Charlie then raises his leg – fully extended like a dancer – to scratch himself like a dog. The scene reminds us of the Greek philosopher Diogenes (the “laughing philosopher”), who called himself a dog because he was homeless and performed his necessities in public.

Chaplin early on had grasped the advantage of sudden irrational action within a constricted, stable, classical frame – the Tramp would always be the unintentional “transgressive anarchy” to the over-determined “rational stability” of the set and the players. This is a lesson that was well learned by The Marx Brothers, who repeatedly used the motif in their work, and took it to its most extreme example in the brilliant stowaway cabin sequence in Monkey Business (1931). As Chaplin slowly wakes up he realizes there is a crowd watching him screaming while a row of men in suits and top hats are asking him to come down from their sculpture. He does so only reluctantly, clearly not a morning person.

It is a rude awakening that makes a mockery of the monumental, starting with his “bed.” There is even a full orchestra playing a patriotic song like an alarm clock making sure Charlie wakes up. The tramp slowly descends, using an adjacent statue that has a prominent sword in hand that skewers Charlie by the seat of his pants, leaving him dangling helplessly like a baby being held up for inspection. This is an absurd representation of the human body at its most vulnerable, but Chaplin turns such a moment of trauma – waking up helpless in front of an angry mob – into comedy, putting the gravitas into a minor key. He slides down one of the figures and lands with his butt against a heroic face looking up to the sky. The sexual innuendo drives the crowd into an apoplectic frenzy. The mayor demands to know what he’s been doing sleeping on their artwork, as they see only a homeless man that has ruined the debut of their expensive statue.

As he proceeds to lower himself to street level he decides to casually tie his shoes first and places his head next to the open hand of a statue with Chaplin’s nose butting up to the statue’s thumb creating a new motif – the equivalent of sending the audience up and telling them to piss off. To add insult to injury he uses his other arm to point in the opposite direction. He then holds the faux heroic pose, clearly mocking the statue and the ideology of neoclassicism, showing it to be an emperor without clothes. But in the midst of all the screaming and the chaos he tips his hat acknowledging the crowd, and us, introducing his film City Lights with a warm welcome.

Once he hits the ground Chaplin knows he doesn’t belong with the dignitaries and the first thing he does is hop a fence behind some trees, like a man on the lam. The crowd and the cops (no longer Kops) as well as the orchestra, occupy a different space from Chaplin in the blocking, and this is meant to be both a psychological and a social displacement, as Charlie is dressed in the ill-fitting fancy suit and shoes that are discards from a thrift store that have seen better days. These clothes link the tramp, like Godfrey in My Man Godfrey (1936), to the bourgeois class, to the aristocracy, and to the down and out working class at the same time – the perpetual outsider, misfit and wanderer whose greatest ambition, of course, is to fit in.

What the Tramp brings to the table, in terms of early 20th century narrative art is a subtle but insistent tension between wanting to find his place within the social world and simultaneously rebuffing and even rejecting that world. Charlie brings the terror of the corporeal with him, but he does this without meaning to, which makes it funny. For example in the film His New Job (1915) Charlie gets a job as an actor in a film studio and he is set to play in a typical costume romance of the time, set in a palatial European court of the 18th century. Charlie, as always wants desperately to find his place. The moment the Tramp steps into the scene, with his usual ambling walk and sly side looks, always on the make, the fantasy collapses around him and we are left with some funny looking actors in wigs and a rather shabby looking “royal” set. He can’t act at all so when someone slaps him as part of a scene he punches him back, and when a woman smiles at him he lunges at her because he presumes she must like him – he is oblivious to fiction. He is also oblivious to the façade of power, to the fourth wall, to role-playing, so he is always getting into trouble. Charlie is the odd man out. The Tramp shatters illusions, even his own, as we see with City Lights.

To bring the point home, while chatting up a young lady Charlie casually leans on an enormous classical column and it immediately tips over. The classical again is made out to be a fake – a recurring motif in his work. The pretension that history is something that is available to us to recreate with scenery, props and actors– the essence not only of the historical film but of historical narrative per se – is destroyed, as is the ruling-class illusions of classical idealism at the beginning (Peace and Prosperity), when Charlie reveals what is behind this classical mask of respectability: an out of work homeless man seeking companionship and shelter from the storm.

That need for acceptance within the social group, never once stated directly in any of his films, makes the Tramp a different kind of personality from his male peers, Fatty Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Max Linder, W.C Fields, and Harold Lloyd. The characters that those masters created were already established within a social group, as crazy friends, neurotic employees, eccentric neighbors, or wacky boyfriends, and their pratfalls only took that eccentricity to the limit of the absurd. Here Henri Lefebvre, the mid-century philosopher explains Chaplin’s delicate and complex nature: “On the one hand, ‘modern times’ (with everything they entail: bourgeoisie, capitalism, techniques and technicity, etc.) and on the other, the Tramp. The relation between them is not a simple one. In a fiction truer than reality as it is immediately given, they go on producing and destroying one another ceaselessly. In this way the comical produces the tragic, the tragic destroys the comical, and vice versa. Cruelty is never absent from the clowning; the setting for the clowning is constantly being broadened: the city, the factory, Fascism, capitalist society in its entirety. But is the comedy defined by its underlying tragedy, or by its victory of the tragic? It is in the spectator personally that Charlie Chaplin constantly manages to unite these two ever-present and conflicting aspects, the tragic and the comical: laughter always manages to break through; and like the laughter of Rabelais, Swift and Moliére it denies, destroys, liberates. Suffering itself is denied and this denial is put on display. In this fictitious negation we reach the limits of art.”1

How does Chaplin deny suffering if he so carefully insists upon it in almost all of his films by “putting it on display?” Earlier in his work Chaplin used aggression, violence and subterfuge as weapons. Many critics simplistically look at Chaplin’s work at sentimental, but his work only uses that as one element in a dense encyclopedic mix of styles and themes. Chaplin, despite his lack of formal education, was a polymath with eclectic tastes who made polyphonic works that gleefully transgressed boundaries and conventions (both social and aesthetic). For example the Tramp sometimes kicks children away when they are preventing him from getting what he wants (The Fatal Mallet); he also steals money from a beggar when he needs to (His New Profession); or when first introducing himself to Mabel Normand in a park he uses his cane to pat her butt as a sly come-on, and when she slaps him he uses it again to lift her long skirt so her legs and ankles are scandalously exposed (Getting Acquainted). In one occasion he dresses up as a woman in order to seduce men he wants to get back at for firing him (The Masquerader). In another instance he holds a baby that is interrupting a seduction by his diapers as if it were a sack of potatoes that he might throw out the window at any second (His Trysting Places); or he takes food from a poor vendor when he’s hungry and eats it before anyone takes it away (Mabel’s Busy Day); and he even pushes a poor old man out of the way so he can get to a discarded cigar lying on the street (City Lights) – in short the Tramp is a bounder, a guttersnipe, a cad, a greedy, selfish, monster. But the Tramp is also kind-hearted and generous, and willing to share when he only has a little (The Kid); when work is offered he’s willing to try his best (Dough and Dynamite); and when his girlfriend talks to him, he listens (Modern Times).

The latter film, from 1936, was the final outing for the Tramp and Chaplin decided to finally give him a girlfriend (Paulette Goddard). Although he doesn’t find a home, he does get a down the road ending, with a California sunset, where he goes off with his mate in search of one. Modern Times was also, very appropriately, the last silent film, and a high note on which to end the “Little Tramp” series. In his 22 year run, from 1914 to 1936, Chaplin’s Tramp was the quintessential modern man, finding his way – by hook or by crook – in the 20th century. If we don’t like him on occasion there are undoubtedly very good reasons, but it’s not the character, the film’s the thing. The Tramp comes from vaudeville and like so much of this work, it was meant to hold up a mirror to society, so we would see ourselves but distorted by the looking glass of pantomime, exaggeration, humor and poetry – it is from these that we may gain insight into who we are.

It is in City Lights where we can get can finally get some answers about “denial reaching the limits of art.” Suffering takes two forms here – the blind girl who sells flowers for subsistence wages suffers because she is blind and cannot afford an operation to restore her sight. The Tramp suffers because he cannot gain a foothold into social life, that is, he cannot find work, a profession, a network of friends, or a mate. This world is closed to him. But the Tramp figures out a scheme to alleviate all his problems and that of the blind girl in one shot. He will take care of her suffering by paying for her operation by pretending to be wealthy. He achieves this by using mimicry and acting, that is, he imitates a man he has recently met who is very wealthy, learning his mannerisms and inflections. Chaplin, the master of body language, has great fun having the Tramp learn how to act “rich.” He gets the money for the operation and once her sight is restored Charlie assumes that she will fall in love with him and give him a home and all the rest of it will fall into place.

We know before he does that Charlie is setting himself for disappointment. We know because Chaplin himself has laid out the maze that the Tramp will follow and he has shown it to us. In vaudeville you don’t explain, you show. The class differences in City Lights are so glaring that we don’t need city lights to see them. Aside from Chaplin the other male protagonist is a wealthy alcoholic, beautifully played by veteran actor Harry Myers. He is friendly with Charlie, but only when drunk. The blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) is a one-dimensional supporting role as the main axis of the film develops around the relationship of Charlie and the “eccentric millionaire,” who significantly remains unnamed.

Chaplin was class conscious and not only familiar with socialism and communism but actively participated in the progressive politics of his time.2 Chaplin wore his class origins in a corporeal sense – he had a strong Cockney accent that made him self-conscious as, at the time, it signified “the working class.” Once in Hollywood he paid for lessons to sound British/American with a slight upper class accent, which one can hear in A King in New York (1957).3 Chaplin cautiously navigated the leftist politics of the era, and when he felt he had gone too far he made sure to appease those in power by submitting to their schemes to capitalize on his fame.4 This is Beth Gates Warren: “As a result of his deepening friendship with Wagner (Rob Wagner), an avowed socialist, and because his own painful childhood experiences in poorhouses and orphanages, Chaplin began to express an interest in various social causes. He often accompanied Wagner – a member of the Severance Club since 1914 – to club meetings, where conversations were now centered around the war in Europe and America’s response to it, in both political and moral terms.”5

The Severance Club was a group of likeminded leftists led by Max Eastman and Upton Sinclair that took a pacifist tone as the world teetered on the brink of war. Pacifism was a dangerous position then as anti-war literature or speeches of any kind could lead to long jail terms. This happened to Eugene Debs, who ran his campaign for president (as a Socialist and a pacifist) from prison. As Warren succinctly put it: “Even though Chaplin’s antiwar sentiments were not widely known, some of his ill-considered words and actions had provoked the ire of the wrong people at an especially sensitive time.”6 Ms. Warren is being polite. Chaplin got into trouble many times for his strong political affiliations and his dangerous sexual liaisons that made headlines in the local press. Fortunately for him he had acquired enormous wealth and fame so when the authorities finally came to collect the bill in 1953 and make an example of him – during the infamous McCarthy hearings – he had moved to the idyllic French/Swiss Riviera town of Corsier-sur-Vevey with his family, where he remained until his death in 1977.

Despite Chaplin’s emotional solidarity with leftist causes it would be a mistake to see his art as somehow aligned with politically leftist artworks of the period. Chaplin’s genius is to be appreciated as much for what he avoids as what he shows. While European films featured class-consciousness and class-solidarity in a direct, even systematic way, as we see in Jean Renoir’s The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936), René Clair’s A Nous la Liberté, or Jean Vigo’s Zero de Conduite (1933), Chaplin didn’t go there. He worked in the US not in France, and while he came from the slums of London he had absorbed the ethos of American individualism and free enterprise that in the US is a de-facto theology, a state of affairs that Chaplin loved and hated in equal measure.

True to form Chaplin could easily mingle with avant-garde leftists in Los Angeles, such as the photographer Margrethe Mather and the bookseller Jacob Zeitlin, where informal parties in the bohemian enclaves of Bunker Hill, would go on to the wee hours, and cheap alcohol and radical politics flowed freely in an atmosphere of openness and camaraderie.7 He could also party with William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies in their lavish dinners at the San Simeon Castle, north of Los Angeles, where they hosted hardline reactionary politicians who were plotting, along with Irving Thalberg, to destroy the career of socialist gubernatorial candidate Upton Sinclair. The popular writer had only recently become a politician but was a well-known radical muckraker and resident of Monrovia, a working class suburb of Los Angeles. Not only did Sinclair have a plan to end poverty that would have raised taxes on Hearst and their rich friends, including Chaplin, but he openly baited them. When asked by a reporter if he had any plans for the numerous unemployed actors in Hollywood Sinclair responded (probably tongue in cheek): “Why should not the State of California rent one of the idle studios and let the unemployed actors make a few pictures of their own?”8 If Sinclair’s candidacy hadn’t been doomed before by openly calling himself a Socialist, and then co-founding the American Civil Liberties Union, with that single sentence, published in The Los Angeles Times, he doomed his candidacy and his political career. LA was (and is) first and foremost an industry town.

The politics of Hollywood was crassly brutal and fundamentally non-ideological. This is only possible in the very rarefied air of an aristocracy. The evidence for this is clear and (naturally) comical. When Communist filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein visited Los Angeles in 1930 to try to secure financing for his film Que Viva Mexico! (never to be completed) Hearst and Co. did not feel threatened in the least. They even invited him to San Simeon to meet Marion Davies and the Hollywood A-List. Eisenstein could not resist such an invitation in the heart of “Empire” and he accepted. There is a charming photograph showing Chaplin playing tennis with the Marxist theoretician on the beautiful courts of the Hearst mansion in California. Many creative workers within the film industry, including Chaplin, considered Battleship Potemkin (1926) a masterpiece and held Eisenstein in high regard.9 The A-List wasn’t worried about Eisenstein – they were charmed and amused by him. They were worried about Sinclair who might hurt their short-term pocketbook and their long-term plans for an entertainment empire that would, eventually, cover the globe. They were willing to destroy him, thereby not only save themselves some financial difficulties but also leave a clear message to future politicians and labor organizers to know their place and understand who gives the orders.

In City Lights the Tramp secures money for the flower girl’s operation by pretending to be rich but he does not belong to that class and he never looses sight of that fact. Just as importantly he does not seek, or even come close to, finding solidarity with the unemployed, the working classes or the political organizations that might be at their service. In short, he does not try to find a political solution to his problems but only a personal one. One can’t imagine Charlie in a group meeting to discuss unemployment insurance, health benefits, or the labor theory of value – except as comedy.

Let’s perform a thought experiment. If he were in such a meeting where would the comedy come from? Surely it would be as if he were in a religious temperance hall having to listen to a tedious sermon (perhaps “played” by a bassoon) about Heaven/Hell before getting his bowl of soup. In such an imagined scene the comedy would come as he pretends to listen, while not hearing a word, as he looked around for any young lady to chat up while scamming to get a piece of bread to go with his soup. If he found neither the girl nor the bread he would quickly finish and while trying to leave quietly he would tip over a heavy (probably neoclassical) statue. As it comes crashing to the floor he would make a run for it, first tipping his bowler hat.


Chaplin saw through the self-delusions of class ideology but that didn’t mean that he didn’t have ambitions to escape the class that he (most unfortunately!) found himself occupying. A classic example is found in The Rink (1916). This is Jack Rundell: “The Rink’s basic narrative concerns an impressionable young society girl (Edna Purviance) – introduced in the opening scene before Charlie makes his first appearance – who is deceived into a romance by a waiter (Charlie) passing himself off as an upper-class gentleman on the roller-skating rink…Edna is impressed by Charlie’s movements on the skates and accepts his offer to escort her about the rink.”10 In The Rink Charlie ultimately fails to escape his class, and naturally Edna Purviance, like the flower girl in City Lights, are beyond reach. More to the point, despite his great need to fit in, he fails to connect with any class or social group that might help or welcome him.

In arguably the funniest scene in Modern Times Charlie does lead an energized group of Socialist and Communist marchers through the city streets but it is unintentional. The Tramp notices that a red flag has dropped off the back of a truck and he picks it up and starts waving it hoping the driver sees him. Instead he is spotted by a group of protesters marching behind him. When they see him waving the red flag, they immediately run to join their comrade but Charlie only sees an angry mob suddenly chasing him down the street so he starts to run. When they see their man running the crowd starts to run behind him, turning the event into a farce of class solidarity. This is the working-class struggle portrayed as a hamster on a wheel running like mad but not going anywhere. Charlie simply will not belong to any club that would have him as a member. While his consciousness has been raised – to use that well-worn term from another era – so has his disillusion with class and with consciousness raising itself. For Charlie social solutions are an endgame – a shell game for saps. The illusions of technique and the trappings of the technological society are simply booby traps. All he wants is a good meal, a drink, and a nice girlfriend that he can cuddle up with.

Unfortunately for Charlie the trap is set because at the last moments of the film the flower girl is horrified to learn that her savior is a short, gawky, filthy, street person. The way she recognizes him is not through sight, since she has never seen her benefactor, but through touch. Again, it is the body that speaks. While sightless she had touched his arm to thank him and her body retained that memory. At the end, as he shyly passes her shop window to make sure that she can see he awkwardly smiles at her on the street. Before recognizing him she sarcastically calls him her “conquest” to a fellow employee and then steps outside to give him a free flower.

The moment they physically connect she understands as her body instantly recognizes him. She gets shy and serious and tries to hide her feelings of shock, gratefulness, horror, and disappointment. But Charlie sees what we see. In the final matching, shot-counter-shot, the Tramp is smiling, and the girl is smiling but neither of them wants to be there as it is forced and uncomfortable. It is the body that thinks here, the body that remembers, the body that accepts. The corporeal doesn’t need to say a word. As Lefevre stated so nicely, the “denial of suffering is put on display.” Chaplin ends his film just at that moment because there is nowhere to go for the Tramp or for the flower girl – they both realize that this beginning is the end.

When Chaplin made City Lights he had already reached a point where he had complete control over his material, an almost unlimited budget, and top-tier distribution, as in 1919 he had started United Artists along with D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks. Nevertheless from the beginning of the film when the Tramp wakes up, it is clear that Chaplin is riffing on the work of the Keystone Studios where he first found work after emigrating from London. It is in City Lights where we can say that Keystone finally grows up – Mabel Normand almost got there with Mabel at the Wheel (1914) but she ran out of time. Only Chaplin made it out of Keystone and found his own way in the difficult terrain of Hollywood of the 1930’s, as even his colleagues at United Artists eventually retired from the dream-factory treadmill.

At the beginning of the film after that initial rude awakening in the arms of the statue the Tramp climbs down to street level and he dusts himself off in typical Charlie style, as if he were straightening his expensive suit on the way to the opera, but the luminaries don’t have the time or the patience for such a delicate sense of irony. As the crowd is jeering him, fists in the air, seemingly getting angrier by the second Charlie refuses to take them seriously or apologize – in a passive-aggressive mode he insults them and then shyly backs away. It’s only then that he acknowledges their hate with a tip of the hat, a shrug of begrudging acceptance, and a look of silent desperation. Charlie then turns his back, head held high, for a fateful meeting with a flower girl.

1 Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, Volume 1, Verso, 2008

2 Peter Ackroyd, Charlie Chaplin, Doubleday, 2014

3 Peter Ackroyd, Charlie Chaplin

4 Beth Gates Warren, Artful Lives, Edward Weston, Margrethe Mather, and the Bohemians of Los Angeles, Getty Press, 2011

5 Beth Gates Warren, Artful Lives, Edward Weston, Margrethe Mather, and the Bohemians of Los Angeles

6 Beth Gates Warren, Artful Lives, Edward Weston, Margrethe Mather, and the Bohemians of Los Angeles

7 Beth Gates Warren, Artful Lives, Edward Weston, Margrethe Mather, and the Bohemians of Los Angeles

8 Jack Rundell, The Chaplin Craze: Charlie Chaplin and the Emergence of Mass-Amusement Culture, University of York, PhD Thesis, 2014

9 Ivor Montague, With Eisenstein in Hollywood, International Publishers, 1969

10 Jack Rundell, The Chaplin Craze: Charlie Chaplin and the Emergence of Mass-Amusement Culture

George Porcari

Contributing Writer

George Porcari was born in Lima, Peru in 1952. He emigrated with his parents to Los Angeles at the age of ten and moved to New York at the age of 26, studying photography and art while working at the Strand bookstore in Manhattan. He started to exhibit photographs and to publish essays in 1989 and has published three books: “Greetings From LA: 24 Frames and 50 Years” a catalog for an exhibition of photo-collage; “Beige”a collaboration with the poet Bruna Mori; and “The Antonioni Adventure” as study of the work of Michelangelo Antonioni. He lives and works in Los Angeles.

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