Criterion have just released a DVD/Blu-Ray of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, which is great news. The DVD contains some rare behind the scenes footage of Chaplin directing the scene where the blind flower seller played by Virginia Cherrill meets the Little Tramp for the first time. The clip is fascinating:
As well as director, Chaplin is also the film’s star of course. Here we get a chance to see him try to balance these two roles, without any of the modern luxuries of digital playback that we have today. The atmosphere on set is clearly tense, and Chaplin demonstrates the restless body language of a man frustrated.
Chaplin was undoubtedly a perfectionist. He would do an unbelievable 342 takes of this 2 minute scene, an amount that makes even David Fincher look sloppy.
But it shows us just how far the great man would go to get what he needed. As Richard Brody, in this article in the New Yorker, points out, it was a perfection of results that Chaplin was after. He often didn’t know what he wanted until he saw it.
The above scene was crucial to the film. Chaplin knew that if audiences didn’t believe that the blind girl could mistake the Tramp for a rich man then the whole premise of the movie would fail. The moment has to feel truthful and it is this truth that Chaplin is striving to achieve.
Knowing that resulting film will become arguably Chaplin’s greatest masterpiece, makes this footage all the more poignant and inspiring. It is his complete commitment to capturing truth that I would argue elevates his work beyond mere entertainment and into the realms of art.