New on Video: ‘City Lights’ enters the Criterion Collection

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City Lights
Written by Charles Chaplin
Directed by Charles Chaplin
USA, 1931

As they have with The Gold Rush, Modern Times, The Great Dictator, and Monsieur Verdoux, The Criterion Collection has released another stunning Blu-ray/DVD transfer of a Charlie Chaplin classic, rife with a surplus of features. City Lights (1931), which Criterion itself calls, “the most cherished film by Charlie Chaplin … his ultimate Little Tramp chronicle,” is certainly a film easy to love and admire; it’s The Tramp at his most endearingly hapless, his best of intentions always hilariously undermined, and it’s perhaps the most emotionally affecting Chaplin film.

The Kid has the unforgettable Jackie Coogan desperately reaching out for his newfound father figure, and throughout, the young boy and Chaplin tug at the heartstrings. But City Lights, especially with its transcendent final scene, trumps the more manipulatively straightforward sentiment in the earlier feature. Much has been made of this supremely effective conclusion, its careful balance of natural performance with unadulterated presentation. Famed critic James Agee said it was “the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies.” Chaplin acknowledges the moment’s potency, attributing its power to the acting, or the lack thereof: he had “a beautiful sensation of not acting, of standing outside myself. The key was exactly right.” Albert Einstein, Chaplin’s guest at the Los Angeles premiere of the film, even teared up while watching the final moments, and as critic Gary Giddins notes in his essay accompanying the disc, those waiting in line to see the film were probably perplexed as the “[a]udience emerges from a previous screening evidently choked up, flushed, hankies dabbing eyes. What kind of comedy is this?”

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Before this justly famous ending, there is 80 minutes of characteristic Chaplin comedy and pathos, slapstick and romance, sight gags and distress. The love that develops between Chaplin’s Tramp and Virginia Cherrill’s blind flower girl is a beautiful one, but it’s one founded on a lie, or at least an unrectified misunderstanding. Based on a deceptive car door slamming, she believes he is a wealthy aristocrat. She’s attractive, sweet, and innocent, so he’s not about to correct her. He woos her and cares for her; truth be told, he’s a little intrigued by her blindness. She, in turn, continues to fall for him. While others mock the Tramp for what he is, she begins to love him for what he pretends to be. But what will happen if and when the jig is up? City Lights, then, is at once an exceptional love story (its subtitle is “A Comedy Romance in Pantomime”), but there is also tension based on the maintenance of the illusion Chaplin is attempting to enact.

The same holds true for the film’s parallel relationship between The Tramp and the Eccentric Millionaire (Harry Myers) who, when drunk, sees the vagabond as a kindred spirit, bombarding him with drink, women, and money. When sober, he’s dismissive of the apparent bum. The continuing drama and comedy that arises from these moments of false or impaired perceptions and decisions is meticulously crafted and hilariously executed. The Tramp frequently finds himself where he shouldn’t be, by his own doing or by a cruel twist of comedic fate. In a sequence favored by Chaplin himself, The Tramp gives boxing a go in the hopes of making some money for the flower girl’s eye operation. Derivative of his short The Champion, an excerpt of which is included on the disc, this sequence is a sustained exercise in cinematic staging and choreography, as the embattled Tramp is amusingly and sadly futile in the ring. 

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So much of the humor in City Lights, as with most silent comedy, is based around the physicality of the performers, and the pantomime of the aforementioned subtitle is crucial to this film. By the time City Lights was released, the sound film was here and here to stay. Years had passed since Don Juan, The Jazz Singer, and The Lights of New York, three key films in the gradual development and permanence of the “talking picture,” but Chaplin, the most famous of silent filmmakers, was still holding out. In his commentary track for the disc, author Jeffrey Vance (“Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema”) notes that the film was in fact an “act of defiance.” And in an interview with Chaplin, included in the disc booklet, he gives his own artistic reasoning for the hesitance: “Movement is near to nature … and it is the spoken word which is embarrassing. … Pantomime to me is an expression of poetry, comic poetry.” With City Lights, he would concede to some sound effects (most amusingly, a honking noise in place of dialogue, a sly mock of the “talkies” and of the pompous speech-making of the characters) and a recorded score that Chaplin wrote, but for now, the Tramp still wasn’t talking (he only would, sort of, in his final appearance in Modern Times).  

Despite off-screen troubles, most notably with the inexperienced and apparently lackadaisical Cherrill, and even with the film being 2-plus years in production, including 180 days of shooting, and even with takes numbering into the hundreds (342 for Chaplin’s and Cherrill’s meeting – shot, thankfully, over the course of several months), City Lights comes across as an effortless film. This, however, was not the case. As the documentaries included on this disc demonstrate – “Chaplin Today: “City Lights” and especially “Chaplin Studios: Creative Freedom by Design” – Chaplin the filmmaker was a scrupulous craftsman and deliberate artist. In the latter featurette, we see fascinating footage of Chaplin’s set and studio, revealing an impressive behind-the-genius methodology. Having his own sets and working on his own time was a vital part of his creativity and his creative freedom; by this point, he had earned it. Archival footage from the production, also included on the disc, further showcases Chaplin’s process, where we see his direction of himself and others. Knowing what was at stake with this film (if it failed, Chaplin’s likelihood of staying out of the sound film business would be substantially diminished), the sense of urgency and the need for perfection is evident in his mannerisms, his obvious frustrations, and his expressions of joy when things were going well.

City Lights was Chaplin’s personal favorite, and Vance continually mentions it as the preferred Chaplin movie of everyone from Martin Scorsese to Stanley Kubrick to Jean Renoir. The American Film Institute chose the picture as the 11th greatest American movie of all time and the same organization named it the top romantic comedy. Internationally, the 2012 Sight & Sound poll placed it at No. 50 from anywhere, ever. As Vance concludes, it “[c]ontains all the best elements of Chaplin’s work.”

— Jeremy Carr

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