City Lights

Director: Charles Chaplin
Screenplay: Charles Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin (A Tramp), Virginia Cherrill (A Blind Girl), Florence Lee (Her Grandmother), Harry Myers (An Eccentric Millionaire), Al Ernest Garcia (His Butler), Hank Mann (A Prizefighter)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1931
Country: U.S.
City Lights Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
City LightsRight as Charles Chaplin was beginning preparation on City Lights, his fifth feature film and the third to center on his iconic Little Tramp character, Hollywood cinema underwent a seismic shift with the arrival of synchronized sound. The industry had been toying with the technology for years; on August 6, 1926, Warner Brothers debuted Don Juan, their first synchronized sound film using the Vitaphonem sound-on-disc system, and The Jazz Singer, which featured instances of synchronized dialogue, took the world by storm in the fall of 1927. By 1928, with the release of Warners’ first “100% All Talking” film Lights of New York, it was clear that “talkies” were here to stay. Chaplin, who had been perfecting the art of comedic pantomime and raising it to new levels of artistry for the previous decade and a half, was understandably resistant to the technological shift, professing as late as 1931 that he would “give the talkies three years.” His art was a silent one—or at least one devoid of spoken dialogue—and he was determined to continue on, regardless of what the rest of the industry was doing.

Thus, City Lights is, for all intents and purposes, a silent film in the sense that all dialogue is presented in intertitles and we never hear anyone speak. Well, that’s not entirely true, as Chaplin uses the film’s opening sequence in which a portly politician dedicates an elaborate new statute in the city square, to mock both the pomposity of public figures and the technical inadequacies of early sound by having him speak in tinny, nonsensical noise produced by a kazoo (the fact that the statue is meant to evoke “peace and prosperity” when the country was in the midst of the Great Depression gives it an added jab of social satire, as well). Chaplin’s resistance to synchronized sound extended only to dialogue, as he employed a synchronized musical score, most of which he composed himself, and also deployed carefully chosen comical sound effects to underscore the action onscreen.

One of those sound effects is the simple slamming of a car door, but it becomes a lynchpin of the plot and evidence of Chaplin’s brilliance in finding clever ways to employ the new cinematic technology. The car door being slammed is that of a limousine, which Chaplin’s tramp has crawled through during a traffic jam to avoid running into a police officer. Sitting on the sidewalk is a blind girl selling flowers, and she mistakes the connection between the limousine door closing and the tramp arriving as evidence that he is a man of great wealth. The tramp, ever the sentimental sort, falls immediately in love with her and becomes determined to help her out, especially when he learns that her eyesight can be restored by a medical procedure available only in Vienna. Being a tramp, he has no economic means, but that doesn’t keep him from trying to earn money in any way possible, including working as a street cleaner and later stepping into a boxing match despite having no pugilist skills.

Interwoven throughout the plot involving the blind flower girl is a secondary, ultimately related plot involving the tramp’s inadvertent relationship with an eccentric millionaire (Harry Myers). The tramp saves the millionaire from drowning himself in a fit of drunken depression, and the millionaire is so thankful that he invites the tramp back to his house, dresses him in his finest tuxedo, and takes him out for a night on the town. The only problem is that, once the millionaire sobers up, he forgets who the tramp is and instructs his butler (Al Ernest Garcia) to throw him out. The millionaire reappears throughout the film, and whenever he is drunk (which is quite often), he remembers the tramp as his good friend and embraces him, an embrace that lasts only so long as his inebriation (in one of the funnier moments of reversal, the millionaire wakes up sober with the tramp happily snoozing next to him in his bed).

For many, City Lights is Chaplin’s masterpiece, the fullest elaboration of his unique cinematic art, a position that is hard to argue with. Chaplin had been making feature-length films since The Kid in 1921, which along with The Gold Rush (1925) demonstrated his ability to extend his finely wrought mixture of comedy and pathos beyond two reels. City Lights is a particularly daring film in the way it shifts tonally, from broad slapstick, to nuanced social comedy, to unapologetic romantic drama. Chaplin’s scenes with Myers’ millionaire are among the funniest in his oeuvre, especially when they both show up smashed at a tony nightclub and proceed to infuriate everyone around them with their inebriated clumsiness (many a chair is pulled out from under people, the tramp accidentally sets a woman’s dress on fire, and he mistakes a elaborate dance routine for an instance of domestic abuse that he must stop). The film also opens with one of Chaplin’s greatest and most politically daring setpieces, as the dedication of the “peace and prosperity” statue, which features three Roman-like figures, is marred by the revelation of the tramp sleeping on the statue, after which he gets his pants stuck on one figure’s sword and manages to put his rear end in the face of the other two. While it wouldn’t be until Modern Times (1936) that Chaplin would make a fully political film, City Lights continues the running satire of power and wealth run amok that thread throughout his entire body of work, emphasized all the more by the film’s focus on two extremely marginalized characters (a tramp and a blind girl, both of whom are largely ignored by society).

Chaplin’s perfectionism was already legendary at this point, and the anxiety he felt at making another silent film when the industry was shifting to sound and audiences were clear in their preference for spoken dialogue, only intensifies the difficulties of the film’s production, almost all of which took place at Chaplin’s studio. His working relationship with Virginia Cherrill was strained at best, and at one point he actually fired her, only to bring her back when he was unable to secure a suitable replacement. Stories abound of Chaplin doing take after take, particularly of the sequence in which the tramp first meets the blind girl and she hands him a flower. It allegedly took him more than 300 takes and two weeks of filming to work out the idea of her mistaking the tramp for a millionaire by having him come out of the car. Yet, the finished film betrays none of the troubles, anxieties, or difficulties of the production, and audiences embraced it with great enthusiasm (as critic Rose Pelswick wrote in the New York Evening Journal, “City Lights has no dialogue. And it’s just as well, because if the picture had had words, the laughs and applause of last evening’s audience would have drowned them out.”

More than 80 years later, like all of Chaplin’s best films, City Lights maintains its humor, its charm, and its sentiment. The film’s final shot, a rare close-up of the tramp’s face after he and the flower girl, her sight now restored, cross paths once again, is rightly one of his most famous, embodying as it does the intense emotion that Chaplin worked into his comedies. As much as he sought to generate laughs, he also wanted to move his viewers, and City Lights, with its unblinking depiction of an otherwise ignored man at the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder standing at the threshold of true happiness, is clearly meant to move the audience to tears, which it did. In some of its best moments, City Lights derives humor from the darkest of situations (particularly the scene in which the tramp saves the millionaire from drowning himself, but is almost drowned in the process), but the overall sense we leave with is one of deep affection and warmth, of possibilities for human connection in a world full of misery, heartbreak, and cruelty.

City Lights Criterion Collection Blu-Ray / DVD Combo Pack

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
  • English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio commentary by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance
  • “Chaplin Today: City Lights” featurette
  • “Chaplin Studios: Creative Freedom by Design” featurette
  • Archival footage from the production
  • Excerpt from The Champion (1915)
  • Footage of Chaplin with boxing stars at Chaplin Studios in 1918
  • Costume test
  • Deleted scene
  • Trailers
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by critic Gary Giddins and a 1966 interview with Chaplin
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateNovember 19, 2013

    The 4K transfer of City Lights used for Criterion’s new Blu-ray was sourced from a 35mm duplicate negative held by the Academy Film Archive. It is also, unlike the 2003 “Chaplin Collection” DVD, presented in its proper 1.19:1 aspect ratio, which reflects the manner in which the soundtrack borrowed real estate from the Academy aspect ratio in early sound-on-film movies. The overall quality of the visual presentation is stunning, easily the best I have ever seen it look. The image is sharp and clear, with an impressive level of visual detail and excellent contrast. Extensive digital restoration via MTI’s DRS and Digital Vision’s Phoenix has removed almost all signs of wear and tear, as well as stabilized the image, but without sacrificing the inherent grain structure. The original soundtrack was mastered at 24-bit from a sound negative and also digitally restored, giving us a very clean and pleasant rendition of Chaplin’s musical score and the various sound effects.
    Criterion has put together another impressive array of supplements for its latest Chaplin release. The audio commentary by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance, author of Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003), is a must-listen for the astute visual and socio-cultural analysis it provides, as well as the historical and biographical background so crucial to understanding the film’s effect. From the previously available 2003 “Chaplin Collection” DVD we get “Chaplin Today: City Lights,” a 27-minute documentary about the film that prominently features Aardman Animations cofounder Peter Lord discussing his take on the film’s humor and visual design. “Chaplin Studios: Creative Freedom by Design” is a new 17-minute interview program in which visual effects expert Craig Barron discusses the film’s art direction and set design, including discussion of the use of hanging miniatures and the clever recycling of sets. There is also a significant amount of archival footage from the film’s production, including 16mm home movies from the set with audio commentary by Chaplin historian Hooman Mehran, a costume test, Chaplin rehearsing the nude statue scene, and a complete scene not used in the film (which is a real rarity, as Chaplin almost never discarded entire scenes). Finally, the disc includes a 10-minute excerpt from Chaplin’s 1915 short film The Champion, footage of the director with boxing stars at Chaplin Studios in 1918, and three international trailers. The insert booklet features a particularly compelling essay by critic Gary Giddins and a lengthy 1966 interview with Chaplin originally published in Life magazine.

    Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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