How was this scene shot without hurting Charlie Chaplin?



In a scene from City Lights (1931), a man tries to commit suicide before Charlie Chaplin comes and saves him.

But the man accidentally ties a rope to Chaplin's neck and throws the rock into the water with some force.

enter image description here

How was this scene shot safely without breaking Charlie Chaplin's neck or injuring him in some other way?


Posted 2016-09-20T12:37:02.490


53fake rock will do the trick.. – Qaisar Satti – 2016-09-20T12:40:54.587

63It should be noted, BTW, that many silent era comedians, like Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, were also amazing stuntmen, incredibly agile and gutsy, and usually performed their own stunts. – Walt – 2016-09-20T14:35:36.253

22Others answers are focusing on the possibility of a fake rock, or some way to prevent the rock from traveling any "dangerous" distance. I would add that we also have no indication that the rope is securely tied around Charlie's neck - for all we know, a tiny piece of tape could be holding together the loop around his neck, meaning that even a slight tug would open the loop and keep him safe. In this way they could film the scene as many times as they needed to get convincing timing on the jump, without risking injury to Charlie. – loneboat – 2016-09-20T15:01:23.203

1Also rubber band or elastic rope. – lackadaisical – 2016-09-20T20:07:22.263


You may also be interested in this explanation of a "stunt" in Modern Times

– Dietrich Epp – 2016-09-21T19:20:44.920

6Isn't obvious the actor jumped? – Insane – 2016-09-22T19:04:47.860

All credit to Charlie Chaplin that we are talking about this 100 years later! I remember being a young child when I saw some TV revealing how CC achieved a stunt, where he appeared to walk in the path of a moving train. The TV show revealed that CC film the sequence in reverse! ie he walked backwards across the train lines, over an axe or something similar. I was young when I saw it so I may have a poor memory - but CC was a genius! – None – 2016-09-22T18:44:22.087

"It is hard to quantify how much force it would take to break a human spine, Bydon said. But studies have shown, he added, that it would require a force greater than 3,000 newtons to fracture the cervical spine. That’s equal to the impact created by a 500-pound car crashing into a wall at 30 miles per hour." –PBS

– Mazura – 2016-09-22T21:57:25.270

"To break the neck of a human, 1,000 to 1,250 foot-pounds of torque is considered sufficient. When hanging someone, a typical drop of 5 to 9 feet is enough to generate the force required to break the neck when the person hits the end of the rope." – Real rock or fake, the only danger here was drowning.

– Mazura – 2016-09-22T21:59:29.983

Breaking the spine is not the only hazard. I would be most worried about crushing the windpipe. – Wossname – 2016-09-22T23:10:22.190

He could have had a harness around his waist/torso to drag him offscreen. No need to jump and much easier to get the timing right. – Mad Physicist – 2016-09-23T19:22:44.283

They sell, or at least used to sell, fake foam rocks and bricks at the Universal Studios gift shop. Amaze your friends! – Jason C – 2016-09-24T22:31:53.467

@loneboat Actually, if you watch the GIF again, you'll see that when the "rock" is thrown, the "noose" tightens around Charlie's neck. For that reason, I'd assume that the rope is the part of this stunt least likely to be faked. – Dr R Dizzle – 2016-09-26T13:54:12.317

@DrRDizzle: Sorry, I didn't mean to imply that it was held in a FIXED position - I was visualizing a slideable loop, which would break or unfasten once the tension exceeded some threshold. That way Charlie would attempt to syncronize the jump, but if that should fail, the noose would tighten (as expected) and break away. – loneboat – 2016-09-26T15:25:25.563



Well, I have a theory about how this scene might have been filmed, but I have no sources to confirm this as it is a very old movie.

This rock can be a fake one, because using a real one will definitely hurt an actor. Now, when the rock is thrown, actor takes a jump. To make this look realistic, the timing and jump must be perfect.

If you take a close look, you can see that Charlie Chaplin just waited for the perfect time and made a jump (credits to @DrRDizzle we can see Charlie Chaplin's knees bending slightly.).

Such scene might have taken practices and takes for a perfect shot.


Posted 2016-09-20T12:37:02.490

Reputation: 29 216

57Seems accurate. You can see that the actor who throws the rock has no trouble picking it up and throwing it, which could be evidence that it is a fake rock. In addition, if you keep an eye on Charlie Chaplin's knees, you can see they bend slightly in a small jump as he is "dragged" into the water. – Dr R Dizzle – 2016-09-20T13:24:08.513

13I believe you can tell the rock was fake by noticing the rope goes taught before going slack again, so Chaplin was able to bear the full weight of the rock easily. – DarkSkyForever – 2016-09-20T15:21:40.907

3@DarkSkyForever - Was noticing the same thing. The rope goes taut, then slack. That means that whatever the weight of the object was, it was light enough to just bounce back rather than actually continue some of its momentum forward. Once it does that, its no longer pulling on him at all. – T.E.D. – 2016-09-20T16:26:48.880

From the movement of the rope I think the fake rock was thrown to a stage hand standing on a platform just out of camera range. He likely caught and lowered the rock to prevent it from bouncing back into the frame. – Hugh Meyers – 2016-09-21T09:48:29.580

@HughMeyers Good Point. And nice to see you here. Welcome to M&TV SE. – A J – 2016-09-21T09:50:58.110

@DrRDizzle I suppose as well the small bend of the knees might help the rope tighten before he jumps to help with the timing – Tom Hart – 2016-09-21T09:59:59.277

He could have had a harness around his waist/torso to drag him offscreen. No need to jump and much easier to get the timing right. – Mad Physicist – 2016-09-23T19:22:32.587


In addition to the fake rock theory by @AJ, it is quite possible that the rock did not travel the entire distance it appeared to. Once the rock disappears off screen, there could have been some barrier to prevent the rock continuing. This way, the rope would have enough weight to continue moving, but there would be significantly less weight pulling on Charlie Chaplin's neck.

Matt Butler

Posted 2016-09-20T12:37:02.490

Reputation: 596

2Indeed, the rope is still slack when Chaplin is "dragged". – Matthieu M. – 2016-09-21T11:57:38.580

It looks to me like the rope goes very briefly taut and then slack again, indicating that it was probably light enough to simply rebound rather than pull him along with it. – Matthew Read – 2016-09-24T22:36:47.950


Even if this particular trick is rare, it's conceptually similar to hanging scenes, which are abundant in westerns. In fake hanging, the typical trick is to attach the rope to the hidden harness while the knot is just a decoration: How is a hanging scene filmed?

In addition, the "stone" is likely to be light. In our days, I'd say plastic. Then, probably papier-mâché.


Posted 2016-09-20T12:37:02.490

Reputation: 290

Papier-mâché would "melt" in contact with water. So, count on the stuntman to save money!! – Έρικ Κωνσταντόπουλος – 2016-09-24T17:55:20.937

Who cares? I don't think it would be expensive compared to other equipment. Plus, others have suggested more permanent props. Pumice, balsa wood, plain wood, whatever. – IMil – 2016-09-25T23:11:25.793

I don't care anyways, (irresponsible) time-travelling directors (that may destroy the current future and give its place to an alternate one) might do though. – Έρικ Κωνσταντόπουλος – 2016-09-26T09:54:18.517


The key is to watch Chaplin's legs and the rope.

As the rock goes off-screen and the rope is getting close to taut, his knees flex. At that point he clearly jumps into the water, with enough style (because he was an expert stuntman) to look as if he'd been pulled into the water by the rock. If you watch the rope too, you see that there's no point at which it goes taut, and actually when he jumps into the water it goes completely slack.

This is completely clear when you watch it back repeatedly and analyse exactly how it's done. For audiences though it happens fast enough that they don't see the knee-bend and jump, or think through the implications of the rope going slack. As a result they buy into the scene, and no doubt some of the original audience asked the same question you just have!

You can also be sure that the "rock" is nothing of the sort. For the stunt to be safe in water, the "rock" will almost certainly be balsa wood or something equally light, so that it doesn't genuinely sink afterwards! Notice that the "rock" goes off-screen to ensure you don't think about that - and notice that whilst Chaplin produces a very impressive splash from his pratfall, there's no splash from the rock, even though the rope could only let it go just off-screen.


Posted 2016-09-20T12:37:02.490

Reputation: 587

The water could even be shallow enough to stand up in. (Maybe a platform under the water if that's a real location). Although with a floating prop, they probably didn't bother with anything that elaborate. – Peter Cordes – 2016-09-23T01:02:51.567

1His knees certainly bend a little, but it looks to me to be primarily a toe-jump.  The moment he's in the air, his toes are pointed straight at the ground. – Slipp D. Thompson – 2016-09-24T11:57:32.047


Perhaps the rope is loosely fastened to the rock, and detaches when the rock has reached its limit.


Posted 2016-09-20T12:37:02.490

Reputation: 67


I've watched it several times and I think:

  • the rock is firmly attached to rope, and the rope to Chaplin, albeit to his shoulder not his neck.
  • if you watch carefully, the rock reached the extent of the rope and was bouncing back -- you can see the rope go taut and then slacken.
  • the "rock" was made of some moderately light-weight material, most probably papier-mâché
  • as soon as Chaplin felt the rope tauten, he hopped convincingly off the dock (the man was, after all, one of the great physical comedians of all time).


Posted 2016-09-20T12:37:02.490

Reputation: 1 333


Try lifting, let alone throwing a rock of that size and you'll understand how that was fake; it has just the right weight to pull the rope in a realistic way, and then Chaplin only has to jump at the right time. In fact, notice that he does a little funny jump, not a "rock&rope pull my neck suddenly and nearly breaks it" one, which would be the more real way. Sorry, this is very similar to the top answer.


Posted 2016-09-20T12:37:02.490

Reputation: 151

Please don't add answers similar to the existing ones. – A J – 2016-09-22T01:43:02.813

I'm sorry, I just wanted to add something. – JustPassingBy – 2016-09-22T13:41:02.450

Similar (but not identical) answers are perfectly fine. – Matthew Read – 2016-09-24T22:38:11.353


It's a cut. It's two takes spliced together to make it seem like a single action. Closely looking at the gif, i.e. the video, shows where there is a significant difference between the frames.

Frame 38

enter image description here

Frame 39

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Every other frame is a subtle change from the last. This one shows a significant difference. Charlie's face jumps to a different position. The other guy's hands do too. The Rope seems to have been matted in. The rock suddenly disappears.

Primitive Movie Magic at work.


Posted 2016-09-20T12:37:02.490

Reputation: 1

5Sorry, but I don't see a cut there at all... Look at the position of Charlie's friend's legs and the shadow the right one casts, and Charlie's legs and his right hand - they all perfectly align in these 2 frames and match the camera movement as well. We might be able to do it today with CGI, but they couldn't possibly do this in 1931 with 2 takes. And the rock disappears because it went out of frame. And the face and hands move because, well, it's a quick motion. – Walt – 2016-09-22T06:21:56.810

6Remember you're watching a low-frame-rate movie made with a fairly primitive camera downsampled to a small animated GIF. Information loss all over the place. – Graham – 2016-09-22T14:37:17.917

@walt you greatly underestimate the skills of composting and matte edits in 1930.

– cde – 2016-09-22T17:22:17.623


I know the techniques... A cut would've been blatant, and there are simply zero signs of one here, sorry. I know Chaplin was a perfectionist, but even he couldn't control each frame down to its pixels. This is just how an abrupt movement looks like in a GIF. [And BTW, what would a cut even achieve, if you say it happens after the rock was already tossed? Wouldn't it just complicate matters?]

– Walt – 2016-09-22T17:46:43.883


The rock could be fake and there could have been a hidden rope tied to a body harness on Chaplin that could have done the pulling from off-camera. I'm not convinced his posture and movements give enough evidence to prove conclusively that he jumped. I'm not seeing enough upward force from his legs to justify the height and length of the jump. Hence, I suspect a hidden rope pulling him from the side, off camera. However, being pulled from the side by a hidden wire could easily explain the movements.

Thom Blair III

Posted 2016-09-20T12:37:02.490

Reputation: 116