Criterion // 1931 // 86 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // November 23rd, 2013
A crowning achievement of silent comedy.
"Tomorrow the birds will sing."
The Little Tramp (Charlie Chaplin, The Great Dictator) has fallen head-over-heels in love with a tender-hearted flower girl (Virginia Cherrill, White Heat). Due to the fact that the flower girl is blind, the Tramp has been able to convince her that he is a man of great wealth and importance. He receives aid in maintaining this illusion from an eccentric millionaire (Harry Myers), but there's a catch: the millionaire doesn't recognize the Tramp unless he's drunk. Will our hapless hero's romantic quest prove successful?
If forced to choose Charlie Chaplin's greatest film, I would be greatly torn between Modern Times and City Lights. Both are essentially silent films, but both were released in the 1930s -- several years after the arrival of talkies. They represent Chaplin's last stand against the burden of dialogue, and they're both such elegant, entertaining expressions of his cinematic persona. In fact, City Lights actually begins with a scene that mocks the very notion of dialogue in hilarious fashion. We watch as a government official and a handful of other important individuals speechify about a glorious new statue that is about to be unveiled. However, instead of words, we hear clown-like honking noises (provided by Chaplin himself). It's an impish parting shot from the last great defender of a dying medium. Chaplin then proceeds to further make the case for silent film with a hysterical comic sequence in which the Tramp unsuccessfully attempts to climb down from the statue.
In fact, there are several classic setpieces scattered throughout City Lights: the much-loved scene in which Chaplin attempts to win a boxing match by any means necessary, the scene in which he attempts to prevent the millionaire from committing suicide, the scene in which he finds himself slipping and sliding all over a dance floor...there are so many great pieces of comedy contained within the film's 87-minute running time. It compares favorably to just about any Chaplin comedy in terms of laughs, but remarkably, the film is better-remembered for its romantic side.
The romance between the Tramp and the blind flower girl plays out in such beautiful, tender (and yes, funny) fashion. Though it might have been easy for the Tramp's actions to seem rather sinister (he is taking advantage of the girl's blindness for personal gain, after all), the film does a superb job of assuring the viewer that the character's intentions are entirely without malice. Additionally, Chaplin compensates for putting the flower girl at a disadvantage by making himself the butt of many jokes in their scenes together: in one sequence, the Tramp attempts to spy on the girl as she's watering flowers and ends up getting a glass of water thrown in his face.
Oh, but it's the conclusion that makes City Lights so very special. Though it's a well-known ending, I won't spoil it for you if you haven't seen the film before. Suffice to say that it's arguably the most exquisitely tender scene of Chaplin's career. Despite the fact that much of the film is manic fun, the nakedly sentimental scenes never feel at odds with the rest of the material. There's so much love in every frame of the film; a certain sweetness even in the most ribald comic sequences (such as when the millionaire accidentally pours bottle after bottle of alcohol down the front of the Tramp's pants). Chaplin could be something of a tyrant behind the scenes -- he had a rather prickly relationship with Cherrill in particular (Chaplin even fired her at one point before begrudgingly hiring her back at double her original salary) -- but he loved his movie with a great passion, and the effort he put into fully realizing his vision is fully evident onscreen.
City Lights (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection has received a fine 1080p/Full Frame transfer. The film has held up rather well despite its age. It doesn't look quite as snazzy as Modern Times (which was released five years later), but the image is crisp, clean and relatively free of scratches and flecks (though they do pop up every now and then). There are occasional moments of softness, but generally it's an exceptional transfer. The LPCM 1.0 Mono track is solid, delivering Chaplin's lush score and the occasional sound effects with clarity. Supplements are generous and compelling: an audio commentary with Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance, two featurettes (the 27-minute "Chaplin Today: City Lights" and the 17-minute "Chaplin Studios: Creative Freedom by Design"), over twenty minutes of set footage (a rare treat for a film this old), an excerpt from the short film "The Champion" (10 minutes), footage of boxing stars visiting with Chaplin in 1918 (5 minutes), a booklet featuring an essay by Gary Giddins, a trailer and a DVD copy of the film.
City Lights is unquestionably one of Charlie Chaplin's greatest films, and Criterion has treated it as lovingly as you would expect them to. If you're relatively new to silent films, this is an ideal introduction -- it's as wildly entertaining and intensely moving today as it was in 1931. Highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (Silent, English Intertitles)
Running Time: 86 Minutes
Release Year: 1931
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Footage
* Short Film
* DVD Copy