The first part of this review was written by John Puccio in 2004 in regards to Warner Bros. SD release of “City Lights.” The rest of the review was written by Christopher Long for the 2013 Criterion Blu-ray/Dual Format release.
The Film According to John:
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.
Writer-director-producer Charlie Chaplin released 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 in the filmmaker’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 that 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 undergoes 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. 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 actually involves the Tramp’s romance. Yes, Chaplin knew what he was doing in punctuating the more sensitive aspects of the story with plenty of pointed humor.
The Tramp, as always, is the symbol of the common 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 lampoon the newfangled idea of sound dialogue in motion pictures by having a group of civic leaders talk in gibberish squawks. 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. 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 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 to be moved by it if you watch it. You’ll not forget it.
The Film According to Christopher:
I”m fascinated by the notion that spontaneity is an illusion created only by hard work. Even improv troupes can only work their (sometimes dubious) magic thanks to a lifetime of rehearsal.
With “City Lights,” Chaplin the perfectionist shows us that apparent simplicity is the end product of a complex process. As has often been noted, the Tramp’s first meeting with the flower girl, a scene that lasts only a few minutes on screen, was reshot over 300 times (Guinness credits it as a world record with 342 takes, but the precise number is questionable) over months until Chaplin finally stumbled on the solution (the slam of a limousine door audible to the blind flower girl but not to audiences) to the dilemma of why the girl would mistake the humble Tramp for a rich man. It’s so right that it seems blatantly obvious, as if it could not have happened any other way even though Chaplin tried it dozens of other ways, and that is the mark of genuine innovation.
I wonder how the production of “City Lights” would have been covered by the press a half century later, the same press that exulted in stories of lavish over-indulgence and budget overruns by Michael Cimino on “Heaven’s Gate.” The idea that an artist might have a vision is written off as a joke, or a freakish aberration, by a press corps that treats box-office numbers like a national sport. It’s a business, man, who do these jokers think they are getting all artsy-fartsy? A few “proven draws” are allowed to get away with it… until they stop drawing.
Chaplin took nearly two years to shoot his film, two years in which sound film went from being the newest fad to the plague-like world conqueror, sometimes shutting down production for weeks on end when inspiration proved elusive (perspiration being his only logical remedy). His perfectionism was not an affectation or a dithering tactic, but an essential part of his creative process and we can all be thankful that Chaplin the actor-writer-director had nobody to answer to save Chaplin the producer. Stanley Kubrick and Jacques Tati would follow the trail he blazed, harnessing big budgets to a singular independent vision, but generally filmmakers who wanted total control had to do without luxuries such as money or the promise of a wide theatrical release.
Chaplin went all-in with “City Lights,” both creatively and financially, and it’s hard to imagine a more successful outcome. Stubborn ol’ Charlie didn’t need to make the transition to the new sound world (not yet); he only needed to remind audiences of the glories of the old one, the one that would soon be missed so keenly. And in connecting with viewers at the time, folks adjusting both to sound cinema and a paralyzing depression, he also crafted a timeless classic that still reaches audiences today and makes most of the films made in the subsequent eight decades seem desperately wanting.
The film is presented in its original 1.19:1 aspect ratio which is an improvement over other DVD releases that were stretched out to close to 1.33.
From the Criterion booklet: “This new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution … from a 35 mm duplicate negative at L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, Italy; the final reel was taken from a 35 mm duplicate negative held by the Academy Film Archive in Los Angeles.”
The high-def resolution restores a fine-grain structure to a film that has looked rather soft in other versions (particularly the previous Warner Bros. SD release) and we get the usual upgrade in image detail throughout, most notably in close-ups, Virginia Cherrill’s angelic face in particular. The increase in detail comes without any obvious boosting. The source still demonstrates instanced of damage and debris but not too much considering the film is more than eighty years old. Overall, a very strong 1080p transfer.
“City Lights” is among the first batch in Criterion’s Dual Release format, so you also get the film and its extras on an SD disc included along with the Blu-ray disc. I have not reviewed the SD for image quality.
The linear PCM Mono track is crisp as usual for Criterion. Chaplin composed the sound track which also includes sound effects which have led some to describe this as his first sound film, though of course it has no (intelligible) dialogue. The music sounds a bit tinny, but there isn’t much warble evident. Of course, subtitles are not necessary and the on-screen intertitles are in English.
The extras are a combination of new material and features included on previous releases.
We get a new commentary track (2013) by Chaplin biographer Jeff Vance, author of ‘Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema.” Vance’s knowledge is encyclopedic and can be a bit overwhelming at times, but this commentary is a fine supplement to the film.
Another new feature is titled “Chaplin Studios: Creative Freedom by Design” (16 min.) Visual effects expert Craig Barron discusses Chaplin’s work as an independent producer. He truly had the complete package with his own lot, film laboratory, etc.
“Chaplin Today: ‘City Lights’” (2003, 27 min.) was included on the old Warner Bros. SD release. The piece is directed by Serge Bromberg and relies heavily on interviews with Peter Lord, co-founder of Aardman Animations.
The disc also includes four short features grouped under the menu selection “From the Set of City Lights.” All of these were included on the Warner Bros. DVD. First up is on-set footage (shot by Ralph Barton) of Chaplin rehearsing the Tramp’s initial meeting with the flower girl (8 min.) and it’s accompanied by audio commentary by Chaplin historian Hooman Mehran (the commentary may be new, I’m not certain). Next is the now-famous scene cut from the film in which the Tramp tries to extract a stick stuck in a sidewalk grate (7 min.) It’s very funny and works as a short film on its own, but Chaplin decided it didn’t fit with the flow of the story. We also get a brief rehearsal of the window-shop scene (1 min.) and a sequence in which the flower girl fantasizes about the Tramp being a handsome duke (1 min.)
Also repeated from the Warner Bros. SD is a short feature in which Chaplin spars with some famous boxers of the era (5 min.).
Criterion has also included a nine-minute excerpt of a fight from Chaplin’s 1915 Essanay Film “The Champion.” The collection wraps with nine minutes worth of Trailers.
The 40-page insert booklet includes an essay by critic Gary Giddins and an interview with Chaplin that was conducted by journalist Richard Meryman in 1966. Chaplin name-drops his then-newest project “The Countess from Hong Kong” but also discusses his broader theories about creativity and comedy. It was originally published in the March 10, 1967 issue of “Life.”
I’m not sure if “City Lights” is Chaplin’s best film, as has often been claimed. I hope it’s not too heretical to admit that I like Chaplin’s sound films even better than his silents, but you can burrow close to the bottom of Chaplin’s feature filmography and still find yourself high atop a cliff looking down on the rest of the cinema landscape.
Criterion’s collection of extras is extensive, though half of the material was previously available on DVD. The 1080p transfer is strong and presented in the original aspect ratio. All things considered, this becomes the definitive North American version of “City Lights,” and another essential release from Criterion.