HOME THEATER & SOUND -- Feature Article

Collector's Corner

November 2004

City Lights

  • Starring: Charles Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Florence Lee, Harry Myers, Al Ernest Garcia
  • Written, produced, directed, and edited by: Charles Chaplin
  • Music: Charles Chaplin
  • Theatrical release: 1931
  • DVD release: 2004
  • Video: Fullscreen
  • Sound: Original mono and remastered Dolby Digital 5.1
  • Released by: Warner Bros

City Lights is one of the sweetest films ever made, a paean to the power of love and the goodness of the little people. Charles Chaplin plays the Tramp, who meets and falls in love with A Blind Girl (Virginia Cherrill) who sells flowers on the street. She mistakenly believes he is a rich man, and he is so desperate for her love that he goes along with the case of mistaken identity. In the meantime, he meets a drunken millionaire (Harry Myers) who is preparing to kill himself. When the Tramp saves the millionaire, the wealthy man proclaims his lifelong friendship, and the two share a night of crazy bacchanals. In the sober light of day, the millionaire rejects the Tramp and tosses him out on the street. The Tramp wants to help the Girl, but he has to keep up the ruse that he is rich. He discovers that her blindness is curable, but she can’t afford to travel for the treatment, so he sets out to raise the money. Does he go back to the millionaire, or try to earn the money elsewhere? And there’s another dilemma: If the Blind Girl regains her sight, she will discover that he isn’t a rich man at all, just a poor Tramp.

Chaplin spent 1118 days on this project, longer than on any other film he made. City Lights was begun just as the world started to clamor for sound movies, but Chaplin boldly decided to keep the film silent, in a way. Chaplin’s voice was high and thin, not well suited to sound. So to poke fun at his new nemesis, talkies, he began the film with scenes of some stuffy politicos -- but when they opened their mouths to speak, the sound of squeaky kazoos came out instead. The audience got the joke. But Chaplin found a way to use sound for his own purposes; he wrote a beautiful orchestral score and synced it to the action.

A good deal of what makes City Lights so perfect is the sweet relationship between the Tramp and the Girl. But despite what we see, there were tensions on the set. Chaplin, a notorious perfectionist, was basically unbridled since he was part owner of United Artists, the studio making City Lights. For instance, he shot the opening scene, in which the Tramp meets the Girl (chapter 4), 342 times, until he was satisfied that he had the pantomime down perfectly. Chaplin wanted to make sure the audience understood four things: that the Girl mistook the Tramp for a rich man, that the Tramp had discovered her blindness, that the Tramp had fallen in love, and that he could make the audience roll with laughter even during a touching scene. All the work drove first-time actress Virginia Cherrill crazy, and Chaplin considered replacing her with Georgia Hale. Cherrill found out about Hale and demanded that Chaplin double her salary (he did). But all the trouble was worth it; Chaplin ended up with one of film’s most touching and ultimately hilarious scenes.

Chaplin’s Tramp is iconic, but because he worked mostly in silent films, not that many people see them today. City Lights is the perfect introduction because it conveys all that was wonderful about Chaplin. The whole scene where the Tramp and the millionaire have their first soirée (chapters 6-9) shows the persona of the Tramp -- feisty, sentimental, gentle, thoughtful, and horny, all wrapped up in a bantamweight package dripping with wishful importance. He has only decency in his heart (unless someone picks a fight with him), and audiences loved the character because there is so much good about him: sweetness, generosity, and inherent dignity. But the Tramp also had a tough pluckiness in the face of a person in command, whether it was a rich man, the head trash collector, or a snooty butler. Everyone knew what it was like to be down on their luck during the Great Depression, and Chaplin gave the audience a feeling that a person’s nobility would be judged based of their actions, not their social standing. None of his films accomplished this better, or at a time when it was more needed, than City Lights.

Virtually every chapter of City Lights has a classic scene, but I want to point out one that deserves close attention. Chapter 17 is six minutes of comic genius. The Tramp has just lost his job cleaning the streets of horse and elephant droppings (nothing like a little scatological humor to keep the crowds rolling). Still hoping to raise money for the Girl, he volunteers to go in the boxing ring for a prizefight. What ensues is a veritable ballet as the tramp, the boxer and the referee dance around the ring to Chaplin’s Mozartian music. The scene has been often imitated but never bettered. The scene has been often imitated but never bettered.

It is sad that City Lights came out when it did, having to compete with such classic 1931 talking pictures as Grand Hotel, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Smiling Lieutenant. Only Chaplin’s worldwide fame and the audience’s love of the Tramp ensured that City Lights attracted any audience at all. As it was, Chaplin’s best film was left out of all of the awards ceremonies. Today, it is considered one of the masterpieces of film. The American Film Institute has it listed among the top 100 films of all time, among the top ten greatest love stories, and among the top 40 funniest films. The Sight and Sound Director’s Poll has City Lights tied for 19th best film of all time with Casablanca, Apocalypse Now, and Singin’ in the Rain.

Luckily, Chaplin lived long enough to see his return to the adulation of the public and his peers. In 1972, when he was 83, the Academy gave Chaplin a special award "for the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century." That same year, the Venice Film Festival awarded Chaplin their highest honor, the career Gold Lion. In 1975, Queen Elizabeth II knighted him Sir Charles Chaplin. He passed away quietly on Christmas Day 1977.

The City Lights DVD was mastered from the Chaplin family’s archival copy to Warner Bros.’ usual high standards. I’ve seen the film in the theater only once, and this copy is superior in every way to what I saw. The grays are richly detailed, and there are almost no scratches or dirt. It’s obvious that the soundtrack is 73 years old, but the remastering is judicious in using the surround channels only for ambience. I marginally preferred the 5.1-channel mix to the mono for its extra spaciousness, and that’s something I normally can’t say.

Unfortunately, the extras are a flimsy lot. They grace us with some wonderful outtakes and newsreels, but they should have hired a film-loving critic or scholar to pull it all together. As it is, the main piece on the extras disc is an appreciation by Peter Lord, whom you may remember as the director of Chicken Run. Orson Welles, the director of what is widely considered to be the greatest film of all, Citizen Kane, singled out City Lights as his favorite film. Welles, of course, is no longer with us, but I think Warner Bros. could have found someone with just a smidge more prestige, let alone insight, than the director of Chicken Run.

Silent movies are a world unto themselves, and in many ways are the purest form of the art of film. There are many wonderful silent films that viewers new to the genre might start with; Metropolis, Nosferatu, Bronenosets Potyomkin, and The General immediately come to mind. City Lights is my favorite.

...Wes Marshall


PART OF THE SOUNDSTAGE NETWORK -- www.soundstagenetwork.com