“He is the only person to have gone down into cinematic history without any shadow of a doubt. The films he left behind can never grow old.”
– Andrei Tarkovsky
– Andrei Tarkovsky
Few movies are as inspirational as Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (1931). Chaplin’s revered and lyrical comic masterpiece is uncharacteristically romantic; his iconic ‘little tramp’ effortlessly, and quite unexpectedly, morphing into the movie’s leading man in the final reel. Indeed, Chaplin – whose autonomy in Hollywood afforded him unprecedented artistic freedom to experiment (it is rumored he indulged in 300 takes of the tramp’s first ‘cute meet’ with the blind girl played by Virginia Cherrill) allowed the movie to evolve almost by accident or at least, through trial and error; Chaplin’s fastidious tinkering with the particulars deemed a nuisance by some, but well worth the struggle until his creative vision was reciprocated back at him from the screen of his projection room. For obvious financial reasons it is unlikely that Chaplin’s perfectionism could have survived the transition from old Hollywood into new. With the possible exception of Limelight (1952) Chaplin’s later films reveal his increasing inability to keep up with the times. But in 1931, Chaplin had a more pressing concern to consider. Overnight, Warner Bros. The Jazz Singer had turned the movie-making community on end with its introduction of synchronized sound.
The public’s insatiable appetite for talking pictures threatened many a silent star who spoke with thick foreign accents. But Chaplin’s concern was over the transitioning from artful wordless pantomime into this more realistic milieu where actors were expected to emote in words. Chaplin’s forte had been in the expressive gesturing of his entire body; the liquidity with which his deepest emotions seemed to rise from beneath that heavy pancake makeup and bristle mop moustache in close-up and the musical way he moved his limbs; part contortionist/part marionette, the bounce, bump and shuffle of his frame emitting wellsprings of descriptive byplay that no amount of dialogue – either spoken within a movie or expounded upon herein – could accurately articulate.
Hence, City Lights marked something of a turning point for Chaplin and his alter ego. Although he would not utter a syllable in his first ‘sound’ movie (delaying the inevitable until 1936’s Modern Times), Chaplin’s wicked stab at sound – which he so clearly considered as inconsequential – is dealt with early on; Chaplin’s proletariat snub at authority allowing his city officials to ‘speak’ with the aid of a kazoo. The modulated intonations of the kazoo are delightfully obtuse and mimic the pontificating address and dedication of a statue to commerce and prosperity. Chaplin further undercuts the importance of such a ridiculous ceremony, particularly at the height of the Depression, by unveiling his tramp fast asleep in the lap of one of the stone figures covered beneath a heavy tarp. Maneuvering back and forth, catching the seat of his pants on the sword of another statue, and then taking his seat on the open palm of another, much to the chagrin of the city officials, Chaplin’s tramp eventually bows out from this spectacle, disappearing behind a wrought iron fence.
He is next spotted on a street corner, taunted for his lower class appearance by a pair of devious newsboys (Ray Erlenborn and Austen Jewell) before admiring an art deco nude figure in a shop window, all the while unknowingly in constant threat of plummeting through an open trap in the sidewalk. Chaplin’s faith in humanity – and, indeed love – is restored several moments later with his first encounter of the impoverished blind girl (Cherrill) selling flowers on a corner near the park. To avoid confrontation with a police officer, the tramp steps in, then out of a nearby chauffeur-driven automobile, the sound of its door closing alerting the girl to his presence. She offers him a flower and, more importantly, a tender kindness; Cherrill’s angelic features and exquisite feigning of sightlessness thoroughly captivating both the tramp’s and our hearts.
The tramp is immediately smitten in their exchange, Chaplin’s timing superb as he quietly observes the girl from a respectful distance. When the real occupant of the automobile returns, slamming the car door before being driven away, the blind girl calls out after him for his change and the tramp suddenly realizes that she has mistaken him for a gentleman of means. For a few more quiet moments he pensively observes the girl as she reaches to refresh her small bucket in a nearby fountain; Chaplin baiting the audience with prospects of an even more uplifting and kindhearted exchange that is suddenly dashed in a fit of riotous comedy after the girl accidentally rinses out her bucket, unknowingly splashing the tramp in his face.
Chaplin and Cherrill did not get on. In fact, Chaplin found her frequent tardiness wholly unprofessional and even fired Cherrill after a few scenes had already been shot, only to realize he could not find another actress capable of extolling as much sincerity and depth of longing as Cherrill had managed to convey with the most modest of gestures. Reluctantly, Cherrill was rehired and the movie completed with varying degrees of incident and temperament along the way.
After a brief fade to black the movie’s timeline advances to evening, the tramp encountering a drunken and depressed millionaire (Harry Myers) under a bridge about to commit suicide by tying a rather large stone size around his neck and jumping into the river. The tramp saves the man from several failed attempts before convincing him that he has every reason to live. Grateful, but still wildly inebriated, the millionaire takes the tramp home for a change of clothes before the two set out to paint the town red. Their nightclub debaucheries are distilled into some playful badinage with several ladies and the displacement of chairs that leave their male counterparts without a seat at the club. The next morning the tramp and the millionaire encounters the flower girl selling her wares near the park and the tramp begs his new found friend for some money to buy all of her flowers, thus providing her with liberty for the afternoon. Afterward, the tramp has the girl driven to her home in the millionaire’s Rolls-Royce, the girl elated at the prospect of becoming a rich man’s wife.
The girl informs her kindly grandmother (Florence Lee) about her wealthy patron and the tramp makes plans to ask the millionaire for enough money so that the girl can undergo an experimental surgery that will likely restore her sight. Unfortunately, the millionaire does not remember the tramp once he is sober and his butler (Allen Garcia) orders the tramp out of the house. Undaunted, the tramp bides his time until the millionaire is drunk again. But this fair weather friendship is chronically doomed. Next, the tramp elects to take on legitimate work as a street sweeper. Regrettably, the tramp’s work ethic leaves much to be desired. He is chronically late, quickly fired and penniless yet again.
The tramp decides to enter a boxing tournament; convincing the prizefighter (Hank Mann) to split the $50 cash winnings in a fixed match. As it turns out, the fighter is forced to flee during training when a tipster suggests the police are looking for him. The tramp is matched with another boxer (Tom Dempsey) who absolutely refuses to share the cash prize. Moreover, he intends to brutalize the tramp in the ring, the tramp skillfully using the referee (Eddie Baker) as his shield until the penultimate moment of retribution when he is knocked unconscious in the ring, thereby losing the fight and the money.
The tramp is reunited with the millionaire newly returned from Europe and very much intoxicated. Learning of the tramp’s plight, the millionaire takes the tramp back to his mansion where, unbeknownst to either, two burglars are already waiting. The millionaire gives the tramp $1000. But the pair of burglars spring into action, knocking the millionaire unconscious in their struggle. The tramp valiantly telephones for help. However, when the police arrive they find only the tramp and the millionaire; the butler accusing the tramp of attempted theft. Finding the $1000 on the tramp’s person, the police inquire how he came to possess it and the millionaire – newly restored from the bump on his head - admits that he cannot remember giving the money away.
The tramp makes a daring escape, finds the flower girl and gives her the money for the operation before informing her that he will be going away for a while. Not long after, he is caught by the police and sent to prison. Many months later, the tramp emerges from the state penitentiary a changed man; careworn, bitter and sullen. He is taunted once more by the newsboys, this time with a pee shooter; the accosting witnessed with amusement by the flower girl, now able to see and working in a nearby shop. The tramp is entranced by her angelic face, approaching cautiously. The girl offers him a flower, pretending kindness until she inadvertently touches the tramp’s hand in the exchange. She recalls from memory the texture of his skin; her expression suddenly changing from mild delight to poignant sadness as she declares, “You!” The tramp’s face loses all of its harshness in close up, his eyes moist with affection and recognition as the two begin their heartfelt acquaintance anew.
City Lights is at once Chaplin’s greatest romantic comedy and crossover experiment into sound recording technology. Although virtually all of the dialogue within the movie is conveyed through the use of time-honored silent inter-titles, the film’s soundtrack features synchronized music (composed by Alfred Newman) and scantly integrated effects. Yet Chaplin’s great restraint in these applications of sound renders City Lights very much more a masterpiece of the silent era (perhaps its last) than an early ‘talkie’. And Chaplin proves unequivocally that when it came to sound, he could just as easily do with as without. City Lights overwhelming success at the box office was not without its critical detractors, but it ensured that Chaplin would continue to produce films of quality that undercut the importance of integrated sound. It would not be until 1940’s The Great Dictator that Chaplin would speak (apart from his gibberish talk used sparingly in song in Modern Times); the silent tramp suddenly given his voice in jested response to Nazi Germany.
Criterion Home Video has advertised their release of City Lights as a ‘new digital restoration’ in 4k. Back in 2003 Warner Home Video released a substandard effort in conjunction with Mk2 Productions that suffered from digital combing. And although Criterion’s ‘new’ release rectifies this oversight, they are still exporting from Mk2’s digital files; the overall quality of the image not tightening up as anticipated. A good portion of City Lights looks remarkably soft with slightly weaker than expected contrast levels. Close ups are the most improved. We can see Chaplin’s applications of pancake makeup, his subtly nuanced facial tics made all the more poignant in close up in 1080p. But the image retains streaks and modeling throughout and film grain, at times, appears to have been scrubbed by some heavy-handed DNR. Again, this Criterion release easily bests Warner’s old contribution. That disc was a Frisbee even before it was out of print. But Criterion really hasn’t given City Lights the full blown restoration one might have hoped for and that’s a pity. The audio is monaural DTS and quite adequately represented.
As for extras; a goodly number (though not all) have been imported from Warner/Mk2’s old offering, including the ‘Chaplin Today’ featurette with Peter Lord (of Wallace and Gromit fame). We also get excerpts from The Champion – an early silent made by Chaplin, plus deleted scenes and other outtakes. Criterion adds a new audio commentary by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance that is comprehensive and well worth a listen; also a new interview with visual effects expert Craig Barron. City Lights also marks Criterion’s foray into ‘combo’ disc packaging – one Blu-ray/one DVD.
Personally, I have never understood the logic behind this marketing ploy. Consumer mentality remains divided between those who love their DVD players and will not upgrade to hi-def simply because they own a copy on Blu-ray disc, and those who have already made the leap to Blu-ray and therefore couldn’t care less about owning a standard definition copy of the same movie on DVD. If studios truly want their consumer base to convert to hi-def altogether and leave DVD in the dust then they should simply cease releasing new DVDs into the marketplace and advertise these releases as ‘only on Blu-ray’. This is the only way a true format conversion will ever occur! Enough said. Bottom line on City Lights: recommended – with caveats.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)