When I stumbled upon the “You must remember this… a kiss is just a kiss” Blogathon for Valentine’s Day, I knew exactly what cinematic kiss I wanted to write about. Too bad it was past the blogathon’s cutoff year. Since I was late to the party, a lot of my favorite film kisses had been claimed, and I struggled to find a top romantic moment to write about. But I was intrigued by Second Sight Cinema‘s suggestion of a “phantom kiss,” a kiss that we the audience long for but which never happens, and I knew the perfect example of a phantom kiss is in City Lights, long considered one of the greatest romances of the silver screen but which contains not one kiss.
In case you’ve never seen City Lights, it tells a story involving Charlie Chaplin’s legendary Tramp character, who stumbles across a blind girl (Virginia Cherrill) selling flowers. He buys a flower from her, but before he can get his change from her she mistakes him for a wealthy gentleman climbing into his car, and he sneaks away rather than dash her imagination. He later discovers that she is due to be evicted from her home and hears of a miracle doctor who claims to be able to cure blindness.
The Tramp spends the rest of the film enduring a series of trials and misfortunes in order to earn enough money to keep the flower girl in her home and buy her the surgery that will restore her sight, all while she ponders the brief connection she thought she shared with a rich man. The Tramp gets a job and loses it, enters a boxing match only to be knocked out, and befriends the very same high class gentleman with whom he was confused in his first meeting with the flower girl. The rich man is a drunk, and becomes fast friends with the Tramp while intoxicated, promising to give him money for the girl, only to forget both the Tramp and his promise when awake. The Tramp eventually gets the money, despite thieves and the police, and delivers it to the girl only to be arrested and sent to jail. He doesn’t see the girl again until he is released from jail a good while later, and the result is one of the greatest scenes in film history, and perhaps the most romantic moment in a romantic film not to include a kiss.
The Tramp, bullied by a pair of newsboys, stumbles across the girl’s flower shop and plucks a wilted flower from the gutter. When the pair makes eye contact he’s shocked and embarrassed, although she doesn’t know who he is. She sees him and laughs, wondering if she has a new admirer in this pathetic creature, but she takes pity on the poor fellow and offers him a new flower and a dollar in kindness. He tries to run, unable to face the girl now that she can see him for who he truly is rather than who she imagined him to be, but she calls him back. As she hands him the flower and the coin, she touches his hand and something is triggered in her memory and she realizes who he is, the man who saved her home and recovered her sight. “You?” She asks, and he nods in response, grinning in both pleasure and fear, afraid that he’ll be rejected now that she knows the truth, but she looks at him with nothing but love in her eyes as the scene fades and the film comes to an end.
If this movie were made today, there’s no way it would end without a kiss. There’d be an equally dramatic instant of revelation, followed by the briefest moment of doubt, and then the music would swell as the pair embraced and sealed their love with a kiss despite their difference in station, and we could imagine a future for the pair living together as the Tramp is finally able to move off of the street and make a decent living, perhaps helping in her flower shop. But this isn’t a modern movie, it’s a silent film from the 1930s, and as much as I’d love for the pair to kiss I think the film works much better as it is.
City Lights is the definition of hopelessly romantic, with the Tramp going through his many labors out of devotion to this girl but without any thought that the two would end up together. And despite her gratitude in the end and the connection they share, there’s no reason to think that the two would become a couple. It wouldn’t fit with the well-established character of the Tramp, nor would it make sense from a societal standpoint. In fact, it’s easy to imagine that Chaplin never intended City Lights to be a romance, given the innocence of the Tramp’s character and the broader appeal of the film if it’s not a straight love story, but there’s no denying that the film itself is extremely romantic.
Whether that’s we the audience projecting our feelings on the film, or the film bring out something subtextual in the story or tapping into common feelings among us all, it’s not my place to say, but I consider it one of the great romances of all time. Love, of course, takes many forms, but sacrifice, selfless acts, and a kind of romantic blindness that allows you to see the best in someone are all hallmarks of love and love stories. City Lights, and the relationship it portrays, is beautiful in its simplicity, and by rejecting a passionate kiss at the film’s climax the story becomes more pure as a result. Sometimes “a kiss is just a kiss”, but sometimes no kiss can be even better.