Though the sound era was well underway in the U.S. by the time City Lights was released on 30 January 1931, Chaplin was able to get away with making a silent film because he was his own director, producer, and distributor. In addition to all that, he also wrote and edited all his own scripts, and was in charge of casting. From City Lights on, he also wrote his own film scores. He was that rare person who was impeccable at handling all these duties himself.
Though the story is told through pantomime and intertitles, it’s technically a hybrid, as it has a synchronised soundtrack, sound effects, and gibberish noises representing the speech of the city officials in the opening scene. These gibberish noises were actually Chaplin himself playing a reed instrument, and represented the very first time his voice appeared on film.
The film was shot over 180 days, though it was in production from 31 December 1927–22 January 1931, making it Chaplin’s longest undertaking ever. He was such a perfectionist, some of the scenes were shot hundreds of times. At one point, he fired leading lady Virginia Cherrill and replaced her with Georgia Hale (his leading lady from The Gold Rush). The famous ending scene was reshot, and Chaplin indeed intended to reshoot the entire rest of the film with the new leading lady. However, in spite of his perfectionism, even he realised he’d already blown through way too much time and money to start all over. Ms. Cherrill came back to work at double her original salary.
In 1934, Chaplin was involved in a lawsuit with Spanish composer José Padilla, whom he hadn’t credited for the Flower Girl’s leitmotif “La Violetera.” Originally, Chaplin had tried to get original singer Raquel Meller to be his leading lady, but when he was unsuccessful in his quest, he went ahead and used the song anyway.
The very first scene Chaplin wrote was the ending, which was greatly detailed. He felt it to be the film’s very centre, the scene which we’re working towards during the entire story. Without giving away any of the specifics which make it such a powerful scene, I’ll just say it involves the Flower Girl seeing her benefactor for the first time.
The Eccentric Millionaire character in the subplot wasn’t Chaplin’s original plan. Initially, he’d thought about an African–American newsboy, someone even lower on the totem pole than the Tramp. The Millionaire character came to him thanks to an idea he’d once had for a short subject, two millionaires taking the Tramp from the city dump, giving him a good time out on the town, and depositing him back at the dump. When he awoke, the Tramp wouldn’t know if it were real or a dream. Thus, the Millionaire only recognises the Tramp when he’s drunk, and thinks he’s an unwanted intruder when sober.
Chaplin interviewed and auditioned several would-be leading ladies, but was most profoundly unimpressed with all of them. Finally, he was successful with Virginia Cherrill, whom he’d briefly met before. Because she was near-sighted, she was able to convincingly play a blind character. They didn’t have a very happy working or personal relationship, though Chaplin came to realise she was the only right choice for the role.
Out of all of Chaplin’s leading ladies, Ms. Cherrill was the only one whom he didn’t have a cordial relationship with (either intimate or friendly). It just goes to show the right person for the role isn’t always necessarily supposed to be a friend off-camera. A good actor can make the audience believe anything.
Going ahead and shooting this as a silent picture was really the right decision. While sound was a huge boost for people like W.C. Fields and Laurel and Hardy, and made possible many careers which wouldn’t have worked at all in silent pictures (like the Marx Brothers), the Tramp just doesn’t exist in a world of sound. He’s a universal character who transcends language, this beautiful race memory who now lives in each of us.