Plot: What’s it about?
City Lights is not only recognized as one of Charlie Chaplin’s greatest movies (if not his best), but also as one of the greatest films of all-time. An epic romance story intertwined with humor and all of Chaplin’s trademarks; make this one for the ages. But first, a little history¦The year was 1931, just a few years after The Jazz Singer and the world was obsessed with pictures that talked! The demand was for talking pictures and Hollywood was churning them out as fast as they could. Chaplin, already a well-established star, decided to keep the picture silent; it would be his last silent film. There was sound, but no spoken dialogue. As it turned out, that didn’t matter as City Lights went on to become a huge commercial success. Even today it’s hailed as one of the better movies ever to come along. For those unconversant of the silent cinema, there’s really only one place to start – Chaplin. Through the years he and his friendly rival, Buster Keaton, released movie after movie and each, it seemed, was more entertaining than the next. Chaplin said he wanted to be remembered for The Gold Rush, but it was with City Lights that held the warmest spot in his heart. And why not? The movie shows a side of people and a depth of compassion that we don’t see, let alone practice, anymore. All this from a man who always played the part of a tramp.
The movie starts like so many other Chaplin films did, with a broad shot of a crowd. A new statue is being dedicated and it lurks under a sheet. It’s raised, only to find a tramp (Charlie Chaplin) sleeping in the lap of the statue. As he tries to scurry away, he is somewhat impaled by another part of the statue’s sword. The Star Spangled Banner plays and as he tries to get his footing to show respect, he keeps falling away. He then manages to be on his way when he encounters a woman selling flowers (Virginia Cherrill). Struck by her beauty, he buys a flower from her and lets her keep the change. Fascinated by her beauty, he learns that she is blind. In one of the movie’s funnier moments, he is observing her and she mistakenly throws a bucket of water over him. Later that night, still high on life, the tramp encounters a suicidal millionaire. Saving his life, the man takes in the tramp and the two drink, though much of it ends up in the tramp’s pants (better seen than told). Unable to drive the woman out of his mind, his passion takes control of him. He learns that she is behind on her rent and also hears news that a new surgery could cure her blindness. Taking odd jobs to raise money for her, we find the tramp picking up after animals in the street and even recruited to box for the hope of some easy money (in one of the movie’s more memorable scenes, the tramp manages to keep the referee between he and the opponent during most of the fight). After a tiresome effort, he manages to run into his millionaire friend again and, one way or the other, raises the money for the woman’s operation.
I hesitate to say any more, suffice it to say that the ending is one of the most profound in cinema history and is very moving. What sets City Lights apart from other silent films and other Chaplin films, is that it still manages to have the charisma and charm of a Chaplin movie without trying to take itself too seriously. I found that while watching this and others that Chaplin was indelibly ahead of his time. This isn’t my favorite film of Chaplin’s, however, I really loved Modern Times. This is ironic as I figured of his most popular movies (and I say most popular and mean City Lights, The Gold Rush, Modern Times and The Great Dictator), I would like it the least. Chaplin was an artist and knew how to evoke an emotional response out of even the slightest gesture. Master of the delayed reaction, he knew how to make the audience laugh, cry and everything in between. With City Lights, he showed the world that even without sound; love is still conveyed through actions – spoken and not.
Video: How’s it look?
Perhaps it’s fitting that I had to manually edit my site so that I could even include the film’s correct aspect ratio? Criterion has pulled out all the stops for this masterpiece and they’ve even altered it so that the 1.19:1 AVC HD image is a bit more accurate. As any fan of Criterion knows, when they take on a title they give it justice. The film, now eight decades old, really hasn’t ever looked better due in no small part to Criterion’s new 4K remaster. I noticed an increase in contrast as compared to my older, now defunct standard DVD version. There’s a bit more grain apparent, but given the age of the film, it was something I was willing to overlook. Being a black and white film, the levels are strong, consistent and solid throughout. Truly this film might actually take up more space on your HDTV if you were to turn it 90 degrees. Still, no matter where or how you watch it, Criterion has done a superb job with this movie and it (literally) shows.
Audio: How’s it sound?
Granted City Lights won’t challenge your speakers as the LPCM Mono track is all that’s included. But, like the video quality for the film, this is the only real audio track that would make sense. And give credit to Chaplin – the movie was made after “talkies” existed and he still went with a silent movie. Kudos to him for that! Having said that, there is sound of course, but just no spoken dialogue (you’ll have to wait for Modern Times for that). I really can’t say a lot more since there’s not a lot to say. Again, Criterion has done a fine job with their efforts here and viewers will be more than satisfied.
Supplements: What are the extras?
Ever since I heard this title was going to be released by Criterion (and it was only a matter of time since they’ve already released The Gold Rush, Modern Times and The Great Dictator), I was looking forward to the supplements. They’ve delivered. I’ll also note that this is one of the first wave of “dual format” titles by Criterion (Frances Ha and Tokyo Story being the other two), so no more DVD and Blu-ray editions from Criterion – they’ve finally gotten with the times and have seen the (City) lights!
- Audio Commentary – You know what I really love about Criterion titles? The fact that they go above and beyond what’s really required of them. So while Warner and Paramount churn out the same stuff recycled from previously-released discs, Criterion does something like this. A brand new audio commentary was recorded by Charlie Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance. Vance penned Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema and is about the leading authority on anything and everything Chaplin. His comments are thoughtful, provocative and more to the point – accurate. This is a great, must listen to any fan of Chaplin.
- Chaplin Today: City Lights – A previously-released documentary that was found on a Park Circus release of this film is found here. This 30 minute piece essentially focuses on the life of Charlie Chaplin.
- Chaplin the Boxer
- The Champion – A ten minute segment from one of Chaplin’s early works – The Boxer.
Boxing Stars Visit the Studio – Circa 1918, this features footage of British boxer Harry Mansell and American Benny Leonard.
- The Tramp Meets the Flower Girl – Ralph Barton, friend of Charlie Chaplin, captured this 9 minute segment complete with a commentary.
Stick Stuck in the Gate – Also from the Park Circus release, this was set to play in the opening of the film.
Window-shopping Rehearsal – No sound and as the name entails.
The Duke – A costume test in which Chaplin is dressed as the woman imagines him.