A comedy romance in pantomime.
In 1931, after nearly three years of production, Charles Chaplin released City Lights, his last—and arguably finest—silent feature. Hollywood had made the transition to synchronized sound years before, but Chaplin was a holdout, worried that the Tramp's universal charm would evaporate if he were given a voice.
Though technically silent, City Lights was the first step in Chaplin's late transition to sound films. While there is no dialogue, the picture features a synced orchestral score (composed by Chaplin) and isolated sound effects to punctuate some of the slapstick (as when the Tramp swallows a whistle at a posh soiree). Chaplin's next film, Modern Times (1936), featured speaking parts for the authority figures with whom the Tramp does battle, and a much-hyped final scene in which the Tramp sings in gibberish. The song was a concession to fans who wanted to hear the little man's voice, but maintained the character's universality by avoiding making him a speaker of English. Modern Times's final shot of the Tramp tottering away, his back to the camera, was Chaplin's retirement of the character.
City Lights is now available in an exhaustive two-disc Special Edition, produced in France by Mk2 and distributed in North America by Warner Brothers. The feature can be had as a stand-alone, or as part of the second volume of the The Chaplin Collection, bundled with The Kid (1921), A Woman of Paris (1923), The Circus (1927), Monsieur Verdoux (1947), A King in New York (1957), a half-dozen shorts, and Richard Schickel's feature-length documentary, Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin.
Facts of the Case
When the Tramp sneaks through the back seat of a parked limousine in order to avoid a cop, a pretty blind girl (Virginia Cherrill, Charlie Chan's Greatest Case) selling flowers on the corner mistakes him for a rich man exiting his car. She finds him charming. The Tramp is smitten, but realizes her mistake.
Later, about to bed down in a public park, the Tramp saves a drunken millionaire about to commit suicide because his wife has left him. The two become fast friends, and have a wild time at a local gin joint. In the days that follow, however, the friendship turns on-again-off-again as the millionaire only remembers the Tramp when he's drunk.
When the flower girl falls ill, the Tramp determines to find gainful employment so he can prevent her from being evicted from her apartment. Maybe he can even send her to Vienna, where a renowned doctor has discovered a cure for blindness. When street sweeping and a boxing match against a bruiser twice his size fail to raise the necessary funds, the Tramp turns to his millionaire friend for help. The eccentric drunk's largesse solves the girl's problems, but when the scatterbrain forgets he gave the Tramp the money, the poor little fellow is arrested for thieving.
By the time the Tramp has finished his stint in the pen, the girl's been given the Vienna cure and owns a respectable flower shop. What'll happen when she finds out her benefactor, never a rich man to begin with, is more down on his luck than ever?
It's fairly safe to say it's no accident that Chaplin, resisting the advance of sound cinema, made the linchpin of City Lights a scene in which a flower girl mistakes the Tramp for a millionaire because she hears his voice immediately after the snap of a limousine door. The scene is a visual tour de force. Meticulously planned and executed by Chaplin, who required over 300 takes to get it exactly as he wanted it, the scene clearly and succinctly communicates the misunderstanding central to the film's story. It looks simple, but without the benefit of synced sound, the filmmaker first communicates the flower girl's mistake, then the Tramp's realization of that mistake. Both error and epiphany are born of what the characters hear, though the audience is left in silence. The whole sequence is a masterpiece so carefully conceived and executed even a child can follow. It's as if Chaplin is going out of his way to prove one doesn't need sound to have sound in cinema.
City Lights is arguably the greatest of Chaplin's silent features. If it has any weakness at all, it's that the slapstick set pieces in its first half—as the Tramp has a variety of riotous interactions with his millionaire buddy—begin to feel disconnected from the romance established in the Tramp's meeting of the flower girl at the film's beginning. We're introduced to the blind girl, then nearly forget about her as we watch the good-natured but gently subversive Tramp rub elbows with society's elite on both his turf and theirs. The narrative disconnect is largely a result of Chaplin's indulging in extended shtick, many of the set pieces refinements of bits he'd been doing since his days on the British stage. The failure is minor because the slapstick is so perfectly executed, some of the comedian's finest, most intricate work. Scenes of the Tramp admiring a nude statue in a shop window on the sly; trying to prevent his rich pal from blowing his own head off in a fit of self-pity while both are blind drunk; wreaking havoc among the patrons and wait staff at a ritzy dance joint; or mistaking a reveler's head for a melon and swallowing a whistle (again, while drunk) at his pal's party may have little to do with the romance between the story's leads, but they're such enjoyable viewing it's hard to care.
In the end, Chaplin does make a (contrived) connection between the first and second halves of the film. It is the millionaire's money, freely given to the Tramp, that restores the flower girl's sight. And the ultimate payoff is the Tramp's poignant reaction shot, perfectly acted by Chaplin, to the girl's discovery that her benefactor was no millionaire after all, but a threadbare hobo.
Simply put, this is Chaplin at his best.
This Warner DVD release presents City Lights in a gorgeous transfer from beautifully restored elements that sport near perfect contrast. Since the film was made in the 1930s, the image quality is significantly sharper and subtler than what we normally associate with silent movies. There are some instances in which the image flickers a bit, but that's the only major flaw and it only crops up once in a while.
Chaplin's score, as recorded for the film's original release in theaters, is offered in both Dolby Digital 5.1 surround and 2.0 mono. It's limited by the age of the recording, but represents an impressive restoration of a quality source. The mono track is the more satisfying of the options due to the age of the source and limitations in the recording technology of the era. It sounds a bit fuller with chunkier low end. The 5.1 mix tends to emphasize rather than mask the source limitations. Neither track leaves anything to complain about, though. It's the best the score could sound, short of re-recording it.
This two-disc Special Edition presents the feature all by itself on Disc One, and all of the extras on Disc Two. Here's a rundown of the supplements:
An introduction to the film, provided by David Robinson, author of Chaplin: His Life and Art, runs approximately six minutes and gives a solid encapsulated account of the production as well as some interesting anecdotes. Much of the substance of the introduction is repeated in the other extras, but Robinson's piece is excellent as a quick overview.
Chaplin Today is a continuation of the documentary series produced by Mk2 for these DVD releases. These segments offer detailed background information on the films' productions, and also give a variety of international filmmakers the opportunity to discuss Chaplin's influence on them. In this particular installment, Peter Lord (Wallace & Gromit, Chicken Run) ruminates on Chaplin's brilliance as a physical comedian and his influence on Lord's own animation. He also offers some incisive analysis of a couple of scenes from City Lights. The Chaplin Today featurette runs approximately 26 minutes in length.
There is an excerpt from the 1915 Chaplin short, The Champion, which effectively demonstrates how the boxing match near the end of City Lights was a refinement of comedy routines developed by Chaplin years before. Of particular note is how much more tightly choreographed, and how much funnier, the City Lights routine is.
Next up is an outtake from City Lights. A deleted comedy bit running seven minutes, the scene involves the Tramp trying to free a piece of wood from a sewer grate while a crowd slowly coalesces around him to watch. It's a clinic in how Chaplin could take the simplest idea and craft it into something funny, smart, and charming.
Also on tap is eight minutes of raw and grainy behind-the-scenes footage of Chaplin shooting the scene in which the flower girl and Tramp first meet.
Virginia Cherrill, who was in her early twenties when she played the blind flower girl, was so ornery about taking Chaplin's rigorous direction that he seriously considered replacing her even after he had most of the movie shot (this is one of the luxuries Chaplin had as a hugely successful movie star, probably the most famous man in the world, and the owner of his own back lot and production facilities). His plan was to bring in Georgia Hale, an older and more established actress who'd proven herself capable of working under Chaplin in The Gold Rush. Included on Disc Two is Georgia Hale's screen test, which runs over six minutes. The scene she and Chaplin play is the film's finale, in which the flower girl, her eyesight restored, learns the Tramp was her benefactor. Hale's performance is more sure-footed and knowing than Cherrill's in the final film, and it doesn't work nearly as well. Chaplin's decision to press on with his original actress was the right one, as Cherrill projects a more appropriate sweetness and naïveté.
Next up is a series of brief, silent archival reels, each in relatively decent shape. The Dream Prince is a discarded scene that runs about a minute in length, depicting how the blind girl imagines the Tramp. A reel running just over a minute shows Chaplin rehearsing the scene in which the Tramp admires a nude statue in a storefront window. It's fascinating for how closely it resembles the final product. Chaplin and Boxing Stars dates from 1918 and runs two and one-half minutes. It shows Chaplin clowning with a couple professional boxers on the grounds of his studio. Winston Churchill's Visit shows, well, Winston Churchill's visit to Chaplin's studio during the production of City Lights. Chaplin Speaks! is newsreel footage of the comedian among ecstatic throngs in Vienna. It offers Chaplin's first ever words on camera: "Guten tag."
A trailer reel offers promos for City Lights in English, German, and French.
The photo gallery is divided into six sections and offers a plethora of stills from the production of City Lights, as well as snaps taken later in Chaplin's life. There is also a gallery of 26 film posters that chronicle the film's release all over the world in various decades.
Finally, there is an 11-minute trailer for The Chaplin Collection.
City Lights is easily one of Charlie Chaplin's greatest works, silent or talking. As a matter of fact, if you're going to own only one Chaplin title, make it this one. It's certainly my favorite.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Introduction by Chaplin Biographer David Robinson
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