Virginia Cherrill

Virginia Cherrill with Charlie Chaplin in "City Lights"

There are two scenes in all the movies I've ever watched that I would run into a burning house to save if the last copy were inside. One is the final moment of Eric Rohmer's "Le Rayon Vert," where Marie Riviere sits on the cliffside with a new love as the sun goes down over the sea. The other is the scene in "City Lights" where Virginia Cherrill's flower girl, her sight restored, sees Charlie Chaplin's tramp for the first time. Both moments are so beautiful and so moving I cry every time they're on.

A week or so ago Michelle and I were in Kettering, touring the charity shops as we do in search of rare books, movies and things for the flat; and we heard a violin playing mournfully. Someone nearby was busking in the rain. "God, that music so reminds me of 'City Lights'," I said, and began talking, probably for the hundredth time, about the scene with the flower girl.

"Le Rayon Vert" has an underlying theme about personal signs and symbols; how one needs to read them to live life freely. Two minutes after we'd heard the violin player we went into another charity shop and Michelle found "Chaplin's Girl: The Life and Loves of Virginia Cherrill" by Miranda Seymour (2009). How strange is that? I wasn't sure whether it would be my sort of book, but because of my love for that movie I bought it.

I'm happy to report that it's wonderful. It's not academic by any means, nor is it particularly incisive, and sometimes it's poorly written, or edited ( two paragraphs begin "confirmation of this..." on consecutive pages); but Virginia Cherrill's life in the ten years that the book broadly covers is so amazing the reader can't wait to find out what happens next.

Every film enthusiast has seen "City Lights" and knows about "the flower girl." Who knew that she married and divorced Cary Grant, had a non-committal affair with David Niven? (Consequently she loved watching "The Bishop's Wife" in later years.) Who knew that the same woman, bored by movies, went to England? was courted by a maharajah? rejected him because of the misogyny of Indian traditions and their brutality towards animals? Who knew she married a lord, and became "Mother" during WWII to a squadron of Polish fighter pilots?

Like every good biographer Seymour is a little bit in love with her subject. When you read the book you can't help liking Virginia Cherrill quite a bit yourself. It takes style to find fame and fortune in the palm of your hand and throw them both away. But Cherrill had a life of such adventure afterwards, and found riches again so quickly, it would be surprising if she missed Hollywood at all.