City Lights premiered at the newly constructed Los Angeles Theater. Charlie’s guests that evening were Albert Einstein and his wife, Elsa. He recalled that the professor “laughed like a boy” and would nudge him and exclaim, “Ach, das ist wunderbar! Das ist schön!” 1 During the emotional last scene he caught a glimpse of the great Einstein wiping his eyes and later noted that it was “further evidence that scientists are incurable sentimentalists.” 2
|With Einstein at the premiere.|
|The new Los Angeles Theater boasted a restaurant, art gallery, “crying room” for mothers,
shoeshine parlor, ballroom, etc. Halfway through the premiere, the management thought it was a
good idea to stop the film, flip on the lights, and have a voice over the loudspeaker describe the theater’s
fabulous features. Chaplin was furious and went looking for the “son of a bitch manager.”
The crowd was with him and began stamping their feet, applauding, and eventually booing
until the lights went off and the film restarted. (MA, pg. 330)
Chaplin was understandably nervous about the opening. He was releasing a silent film three years after talking pictures had taken over Hollywood. He worried that the film was a mistake and the audience would be disappointed. “However, I must walk the plank,” he wrote in 1933, “and accept what the gods have in store for me. When the first laugh comes what music it will be to my anxious ears.” 3 Georgia Hale,4 Chaplin’s date that evening, witnessed this anxiety firsthand on the way to the theater: “The closer it came to the time of the showing, the more apprehensive Mr. Chaplin became. He whispered something he’d never admit only under duress. ‘I’m worried. I have an awful feeling the film isn’t going to be received well…I don’t care about being popular, wanting acclaim…but I do. I do care…I must have it…the applause of people. I love it…I live on it. But I’m afraid tonight.'” When the picture was only a quarter over, Georgia could tell that Charlie’s fears were diminished and he was relaxed. “The audience was once again in the palm of his hand and he knew it.” 5
City Lights is not only a favorite film among fans, but it was also a favorite of Chaplin himself. In 1966, he told Richard Meryman: “I think I like City Lights the best of all my films.” 6
|Einstein and his wife are on either side of Chaplin. Georgia Hale is at far right.
Among the famous names who attended the premiere were King Vidor, Gloria Swanson,
Constance Bennett, Marion Davies, Thelma Todd, Claire Windsor, John Barrymore,
Merna Kennedy, Dolores Del Rio, and Gary Cooper.
*As a side note, I’d like to clear up some confusion surrounding a quote that is often associated with the premiere of this film. Chaplin is generally misquoted as saying to the professor as the onlookers cheered them: “They applaud me because everyone understands me, they applaud you because nobody understands you.” Not only is the wording of this quote wrong but it did not take place at the City Lights premiere & can be attributed to neither Chaplin nor Einstein. The real quote and the story behind it can be traced to Chaplin’s 1933 travelogue “A Comedian Sees The World.” In it, he describes a visit with Einstein at his apartment in Berlin in March 1931. During tea, Einstein’s son made an observation on the psychology of the popularity of both Einstein and Chaplin: “You are popular because you are understood by the masses. On the other hand, the professor’s popularity with the masses is because he is not understood.” There you have it.
1Translation: “Oh, that’s wonderful! It’s beautiful!”; Charles Chaplin, A Comedian Sees The World, Part 1, Sept. 1933
2Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography, 1964
3Chaplin, A Comedian Sees The World, Part 1, Sept. 1933
4Hale was Chaplin’s leading lady in The Gold Rush (1925) & his constant companion between 1929 and the time of the City Lights premiere. When Chaplin fired Virginia Cherrill from City Lights in November 1929, he briefly thought of replacing her with Georgia (her screen test still exists). However Chaplin soon realized it would be too costly to reshoot everything with Hale so he rehired Cherrill.
5Georgia Hale, Charlie Chaplin: Intimate Close-ups, 1995
6“Chaplin: An Interview by Richard Meryman,” Life, March 10, 1967.