Chaplin said it was The Gold Rush by which he wanted to be remembered, but a lot of folks think City Lights is his best work.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

The viewer who can suppress a tear at the closing of this picture is the person without heart, without feeling, without soul. I can't think of another moment in all of film as poignant as the one that ends "City Lights."

And the rest of the movie ain't bad, either.

Charlie Chaplin wrote and directed this classic in 1931, several years into the talking era, yet because he prepared it as a silent film, there is not a word of spoken dialogue. Oh, there are sound effects and music, to be sure, but it wouldn't be for the better part of a decade and "The Great Dictator" in 1940 that Chaplin would let his principal characters be heard speaking on screen. He was the great silent-screen master, and he was determined to remain so no matter what the rest of the film world was doing, subtitling his film "A Comedy Romance in Pantomime." Not surprisingly, the pantomime works.

Let's start with what "City Lights" is and isn't. It isn't Chaplin's funniest picture. That would be "The Gold Rush." It isn't his most innovative picture. That would be "Modern Times." And it isn't his most profound picture. That would be "The Great Dictator." Instead, "City Lights" is Chaplin's most humane picture, his most sympathetic to the human condition, his most hopeful, and his most loving picture. The movie combines elements of ethos, pathos, and humor to create a portrait of all of us, with Chaplin's Little Tramp representing the best, yet the most fragile, in everybody.

As was common to Chaplin's work, "City Lights" is entirely Chaplin. He wrote, directed, produced (uncredited), and starred in the movie, using his own studio to make it. With the exception of the girl's theme, he even composed the music for the picture, and readers familiar with his later film "Limelight" will hear traces of his award-winning "Eternally" throughout "City Lights." As the movie's complete auteur, Chaplin stands or falls by his product, and he most certainly stands tall. If it's too sentimental for some viewers, it's because Chaplin was a sentimental fellow, and this film more than any of his others wears its heart on its sleeve. It's all the better for it because the sentimentality never becomes maudlin or mawkish, and Chaplin knows exactly where to place his emotional touches and how much to use for optimal effect.

The story line is about as simple as anything Chaplin devised for a full-length film, yet it's just as sharp-witted as his more complex creations. Perhaps more so than in any of his movies, the plot is little more than a series of gags, episodes strung together to convey a sense of cohesion and continuity in what is essentially a modest tale. The Tramp is bumming around town when he spies a beautiful, blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) and is instantly smitten by her. It takes him a moment to realize she's blind, but it only endears her to him all the more. They become acquainted, and through the course of events she gets the impression that he's rich and handsome. He, in turn, takes various jobs and undergos personal sacrifice to help her pay her rent and, eventually, get an operation that may restore her sight.

Among the Tramp's new jobs are those of street sweeper and boxer, both done up in high comic style. Also along the way the Tramp meets a drunken, despondent millionaire (Harry Myers) and saves him from committing suicide. The millionaire is eternally grateful to the Tramp, but only when he's drunk are they pals. When he's sober, the millionaire can't remember who the Tramp is and orders him thrown out of his house. Most of the movie involves the Tramp's amusing escapades with his newly made friend, the millionaire, and only a small part of the film actually involves the Tramp's romance. Yes, Chaplin knew what he was doing in punctuating the more sensitive aspects of the film with plenty of pointed humor.

The Tramp, as always, is the symbol of the little man, you and me and practically everyone else watching the picture, the little guy we can all relate to, the small fry forever at the mercy of but never giving in to the powers that be. The opening sequence is a perfect illustration of Chaplin skewering the rich and powerful by literally having a public statue skewer the Tramp while a crowd stands idly looking on. Chaplin also uses this scene to skewer the newfangled idea of sound dialogue in motion pictures by having a group of civic leaders talk in gibberish squawks. The Tramp was, indeed, the perfect emblem of the common man in 1931. For a country in the midst of a Great Depression, the Tramp's affable yet indomitable spirit was just what audiences needed to buoy them up. The character's pluck and resiliency have no less an impact on viewers today, the Tramp's pure good continuing to be an inspiration.

The blindness theme that runs throughout "City Lights" is another element that intrigues audiences. Of course, its primary purpose is to show us that love is blind, but the thread runs deeper than that. Everywhere in the picture we see instances of things not being what they appear to be, of people seeing or not seeing things in the same way. The millionaire, for instance, only recognizes the Tramp when he's blind drunk. Sober, the millionaire ignores the Tramp altogether. Perhaps Chaplin is suggesting that physical perception is a poor substitute for intuition, that people must let go of their prejudices, biases, and stereotypes to grasp the true meaning of the world around them. Like the rest of the film, it's a sweet, if unrealistically quixotic, notion.

The humor in the film is amazingly gentle, and, as usual with Chaplin, a little of it goes a long way. A scene where the Tramp swallows a whistle, for example, should never have lasted the time it does and comes dangerously close to wearing out its welcome. But most of the comedy is priceless, the drunk sequence and the boxing match, especially, bringing out the best in Chaplin's sense of timing, grace, and acrobatic skill.

Which brings us to the movie's celebrated, ambiguous, and understated ending. What can I say? Watch it. Be moved by it. You'll have no choice but be moved by it if you watch it. You'll not forget it.

The video in this restored, 1.33:1 ratio, standard-screen print is quite good. It betrays almost no signs of age whatever beyond the occasional flicker of light. The black-and-white photography holds up well, too, and the transfer is largely free of grain, moiré effects, or other digital artifacts. Of course, there is a small degree of softness to the image, but the contrasts more than make up for it.

The disc makes available both the film's original 1.0 monaural soundtrack and a new Dolby Digital 5.1 remix. In DD 5.1 the sound is slightly more open and spread out than it is in mono, but it's still a tad bright and, of course, limited in the bass. Fortunately, it has only to reproduce a few sound effects and string music, so it does its job commendably well.

Disc one of this two-disc, special-edition set contains the movie, the two soundtracks, and twenty scene selections. English is the only spoken language available for the picture, but there are subtitles in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Thai, and Korean.

Disc two is where the extras are found, starting with a brief introduction by Chaplin biographer David Robinson, followed by a twenty-six minute documentary, "Chaplin Today: City Lights." The documentary was made by Serge Bromberg, who describes the Chaplin film as "a story of love and hope between two lost souls," and it features an analysis of "City Lights" by Peter Lord of "Wallace & Gromit" and "Chicken Run" fame.

The rest of the items on the second disc are brief but of interest to the Chaplin fan. There's a seven-minute outtake scene involving the Tramp attempting to remove a piece of wood from a sidewalk grate that is quite wonderful, but Chaplin removed it from the finished product because it impeded the film's narrative flow. It really doesn't fit into the story, true, but it's fun on its own. Then, there's a ten-minute excerpt from Chaplin's 1915 film "The Champion" that shows us his inspiration for the boxing match in "City Lights." Next, a "Documents" section contains a number of short pieces: (1) "Shooting," on the set during the meeting scene. (2) Georgia Hale screen test (Chaplin actually fired his leading lady, Virginia Cherrill, and intended to replace her with his costar from "The Gold Rush," Georgia Hale; but he soon realized he too far along in the shooting and rehired Ms. Cherrill). (3) "The Dream Prince," another discarded idea. (4) Rehearsal. (5) Chaplin boxes with professional boxers visiting the set. (6) Winston Churchill's visit. (7) "Chaplin Speaks" for the first time on film, Vienna, 1931. (8) "Trip to Bali," footage of Charles and his brother Sidney's visit to Bali. After the "Documents," there are film posters, a photo gallery, about two minutes' worth of various trailers for "City Lights," and theatrical trailers for other films in "The Chaplin Collection."

Parting Thoughts:
Chaplin said it was "The Gold Rush" by which he wanted to be remembered, but a lot of folks think "City Lights" is his best work. On their list of top 100 films, the American Film Institute placed "City Lights" at the #76 spot, just behind "The Gold Rush" (#74) and just ahead of "Modern Times" (#81). I wouldn't argue. "City Lights" is sentimental, to be sure, but I doubt that we would want it any other way.

"City Lights" is available on its own or as a part of a big boxed set, Volume Two of "The Chaplin Collection" from Warner Bros. and MK2. The seven-disc set includes "The Circus," "City Lights," "The Kid," "Monsieur Verdoux," "A Woman of Paris" and "A King in New York," "The Chaplin Revue" (seven of Chaplin's best comedy shorts), and "Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin," movie critic Richard Schickel's tribute to the comic filmmaker.


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