Sound: Original mono and remastered Dolby
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 cant 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 theres
another dilemma: If the Blind Girl regains her sight, she will discover that he isnt
a rich man at all, just a poor Tramp.
- Starring: Charles Chaplin,
Virginia Cherrill, Florence Lee, Harry Myers, Al Ernest Garcia
- Written, produced, directed, and edited by:
- Music: Charles Chaplin
- Theatrical release: 1931
- DVD release: 2004
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. Chaplins
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 films most
touching and ultimately hilarious scenes.
Chaplins 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 persons 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 Chaplins 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 Chaplins
worldwide fame and the audiences love of the Tramp ensured that City Lights
attracted any audience at all. As it was, Chaplins 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
Directors 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
familys archival copy to Warner Bros. usual high standards. Ive 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. Its 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 thats something I normally cant 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.