Today we take it for granted that filmmaking is an art. However, in the early days of the film industry, pictures were considered little more than mindless entertainment with no artistic value. Many films made before the 1950s were deemed culturally irrelevant a few years after their release and destroyed to make room for new movies. Films that weren’t purposely destroyed were lost due to poor storage conditions that lead to decay and fires, which nitrate film stock was especially susceptible to.
The idea of preserving early films didn’t come to the forefront until the 80s and early 90s when leading directors like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese made a concerted effort to restore and preserve old films. Unfortunately, many films were already lost by this time. In fact, it’s estimated that 90% of all American silent films made before 1929 and 50% of American sound films made before 1950 are lost films. However, there was one surefire way to ensure a silent movie was preserved and revered: make sure to attach the name of Charlie Chaplin.
Chaplin, whose career spanned 75 years and included acting, writing, directing, producing, editing and composing, first rose to fame in the silent era thanks to his Little Tramp character. His star power was so immense that in the 1930, when the industry was moving exclusively to sound pictures, Chaplin continued making silent films, and they, in turn, continued to top the box office.
City Lights 1931 theatrical poster
One of those films, City Lights (1931), is today considered not only one of Chaplin’s finest, but one of the best films of all time. On the American Film Institute’s most recent list of the best films of all time City Lights was ranked at #11, and they also named it the #1 best romantic comedy of all time. On Sight and Sound’s original 1952 list of the best films it was ranked at #2 and on the most recent list from 2012, it was ranked at #50. Sight and Sound’s concurrent director’s poll, fellow directors ranked it as the 30th best directed film of all time.
City Lights features Chaplin’s iconic Little Tramp character falling in love with a blind girl who supports herself by selling flowers. Known only as the Flower Girl, the Little Tramp immediately falls in love with her, however through an auditory misunderstanding, the Flower Girl mistakes the Little Tramp for a wealthy man with a car and a chauffeur. The Little Tramp continues to run into the Flower Girl, and he also discovers an article about a doctor who has found a cure for blindness. He becomes determined to get the money for her; even though once she regains her sight she will see he is not a wealthy man but, well, a little tramp.
His attempts to get the money for the Flower Girl’s surgery include befriending a drunken millionaire (who keeps forgetting him once he’s sober), getting a job as a street sweeper (which he gets fired from for being late) and participating in a fixed fight (but then the boxer who suggested faking the bout and splitting the prize money flees when he’s about to be arrested and is replaced by a fighter who sufficiently trounces the Tramp).
Promotional photograph of Chaplin as the Tramp and his co-star Virginia Cherrill as the Blind Flower Girl
Ultimately, the Tramp returns to the millionaire and explains the plight of the Flower Girl and the millionaire agrees to give him the money for the cure. But then thieves show up, hit the millionaire on the head, and take a large portion of the money. The police show up, find the Tramp with some money and the millionaire, thanks to the bump on the head, doesn’t remember giving the money to him. The Little Tramp flees and manages to get the money to the Flower Girl before he is apprehended and arrested.
A few months later, the Tramp is released and goes to find the Flower Girl. He finds that she has had her vision restored and is now running a successful flower shop. The Girl doesn’t recognize the Tramp at first, but after she gives him a flower, she recognizes the feel of his hand. And even though she can now see that he is a tramp, she still accepts him. The Little Tramp’s face eases from uncertainty to joy as the film fades to black.
Silent films rely heavily on imagery to convey plot. Without the benefit of dialogue silent films utilize established shorthand to tell their story. In this case, flowers are closely associated with the Flower Girl and are used to symbolize beauty, love and kindness. Flowers are the first language the Tramp and the Girl used to communicate and are also the catalyst to bring them back together at the end of the film.
By keeping the Flower Girl surrounded by flowers, and by literally making flowers the base of her character, the film is also drawing a strong correlation between her nature and the nature of flowers. She is beautiful and soft, but also hearty: able to survive under challenging circumstances.
The connotations of flowers with love and beauty have been established since storytelling began. From poems to plays to literature, by 1931 people could look at a bouquet of flowers and immediately associate them with romance without a single word being said. Flowers are an easy choice to tell a silent love story so it makes sense that they play such a pivotal role in the Tramp and the Girl’s story. Flowers draw the Tramp to the Girl the first time he sees her and when he finds her again after she has regained her sight.
Similarly, the Flower Girl’s kindness is represented by her desire to give the Little Tramp a flower, both when she is blind and after she can see. Giving someone flowers is a personal, loving act so the shorthand being used here lets us draw our own conclusions about her personality. If she gave a flower to a stranger or a tramp, then she must be good. This is only reinforced when she accepts the Tramp once she can finally see him.
Many people give flowers when words are not enough, so why should films be any different?
City Lights poster. Retouched by Brandt Luke Zorn
City Lights promo still. Retouched by Brandt Luke Zorn