movies changed forever in 1927 when The Jazz Singer was released.
Vaudeville star Al Jolson took the country by storm when he sang in this
first talking picture. (There had been other movies released with
sound tracks, but this was the first that was widely distributed, and had
a system for synchronization that worked well.) The public wanted
to hear the starts talk, and Hollywood was in an uproar. Films that
were already completed were re-shot to add sound, and projects that were
in the pipeline were scrapped. Silent comedians started making movies
where they had a lot of dialog, and the art of slapstick all but died.
Not everyone was happy with the transition to sound of course, and in
a lot of ways adding sound to the movies was a giant step backwards.
The camera no longer moved as it did in such films a The Last Laugh.
It was stationary so that the microphones wouldn't catch the sound of the
cameraman moving. Actors couldn't move as they once did, they had
to stay close to the mic to keep the sound level constant. It was
considerations such as this that caused silent star Mary Pickford to comment
"It would have been more logical if silent pictures had grown out of the
talkie instead of the other way around."
But not everyone jumped on the sound bandwagon. Although Laurel
and Hardy, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd all started making talking pictures,
Charlie Chaplin didn't. This wasn't because he was afraid of the
new technology, or that he had a funny sounding voice. He just thought
that silent movies were superior to talkies for certain subjects, comedy
being one of them.
This was very controversial at the time. Just about everyone thought
that the public would no longer pay to see silent movies. Undeterred,
Chaplin decided that he would continue to make them.
For his next project, City Lights, Chaplin started looking for
an unknown to play his leading lady. Chaplin didn't like working
with experienced actresses, he was looking for someone who would play the
part the way he wanted it played. He felt that a trained actress
wouldn't always follow his directions. His discovery for this film
was a young recent divorcee, Virginia Cherrill.
Though Cherrill had no acting experience, she and Chaplin did not get
along. Chaplin complained that she wasn't taking the movie seriously
enough, and she thought he was too much of a perfectionist. In the
scene where the two meet at the beginning of the movie, Chaplin insisted
on retaking the shot where she hands him a flower over 300 times!
There was just too much friction between the two. After over a
year of shooting, their animosity finally reached a pinnacle and Chaplin
fired her. He started testing new actresses, including Georgia Hale,
his leading lady from The Gold Rush. But the production had
already been a long and costly, and to reshoot virtually the entire movie
would have been too much. Reluctantly, Chaplin rehired Virginia and
finished the film.
When the movie was completed in October of 1930, after nearly two years
of filming, the motion picture industry had changed too much for it to
be released. Silent movies were dead, and theaters no longer had
orchestras or even piano players to accompany the films. So Chaplin
decided to compose a score for the movie himself, and have it recorded
as the soundtrack.
Chaplin had made a point of not looking at the cost of the movie while
it was in production. When it was completed he was astonished
to discover that he had spent an astonishing 1½ million dollars
on the film. Without expensive locations or a star leading lady,
the money had been eaten up by his incredibly long shooting schedule.
Though he had to pay his cast and crew for a total of 22 months, he only
ended up shooting film for 179 days.
To recover his costs, he raised the ticket price to $1.50. There
was a lot of doubt whether people would pay that much for a silent movie,
and Chaplin was worried. At a sneak preview of the film, many of
the viewers seemed confused, and several walked out.
The movie premiered on January 30, 1931 in Los Angeles, and Chaplin
was prepared for the worst. The theater was filled with stars and
Chaplin's special guests, Mr. and Mrs. Albert Einstein. He
needn't have worried. The reception was very enthusiastic, both at
the premier and across the country. The public flocked to see the
film, with one theater in New York running the show continuously from 9
am until midnight. Chaplin's net for the city of Paris alone covered
the cost of production. City Lights was Chaplin's greatest
plot is elegant in its simplicity: The Tramp buys a flower from a
beautiful girl. She is blind and has mistaken the Tramp for a very
wealthy man. The Tramp is enraptured with her beauty and falls in
love. Though blind, the girl can see the Tramp's noble spirit and
feels for him too. The Tramp puts all his effort into getting the
money she needs for an operation to restore her eyesight. But will
he be able to raise the fantastic sum? And if he can, how will she
react when she finally sees the Tramp as he really is?
This film is Chaplin's most perfect work. The story is very simple,
and extremely effective. At its heart, it is a charming love story, but
Chaplin manages to fill the romance with an incredible array of sight gags.
Humor fills the show, but it never loses its intimacy.
The movie's pacing is near perfect, with the story flowing very easily.
A good example is the scene where the Tramp falls in love with the girl.
She hears a car drive off, and thinks that he has left. The Tramp
sits on a bench and just stares at her, as she washes out her pail.
Her beauty mesmerizes him, yet he knows that he, a mere tramp, could never
have her. As she finishes washing, she throws the dirty water in
the Tramps face, not realizing that he is there. This simple gag's
set up is transparent, you are focusing on the romance, and don't even
see the joke coming. It also serves to lighten the mood and is an
effective way to end the scene. Humor and pathos mix
brilliantly to create a moving and funny scene. The entire movie
flows like that. The plot builds slowly, almost invisibly, with humor
and emotion, until the climax at the end.
There are a lot of movies that have really good endings: Citizen
Kane, The Usual Suspects, and Casablanca are all much stronger
films because of their well crafted finales. But in my opinion, the
end of City Lights is the best finish that any movie ever had.
The way Chaplin molds the viewer's emotions is nothing short of genius.
It is a great ending to a fantastic film.
This movie was mastered from a PAL video source and converted to NTSC.
What does this mean? It means that the film runs 4% faster than it
should. The pitch seems to have been corrected on the soundtrack,
but the playing times are still 4% shorter than they should be. This
is very unfortunate, but not a huge deal. About the only way to notice
the difference is to check the run times, the slight speed up is not noticeable
to the casual viewer. Even someone familiar with the movie would
be very hard pressed to see the difference, it is very slight. Another
reason that this in a non-issue is that silent movies did not have a standard
film rate. It wasn't until sound movies arrived that projection speeds
were standardized. (That's why silent movies are always measured
in reels of film and not the length of time it took to show them.)
Sometimes the distributor would even send notes with the films instructing
the projectionist to run certain scenes faster or slower. So the
fact that these are 4% faster than an arbitrary 'silent speed' should not
be a large factor when deciding whether or not to purchase this set.
Audio: There is a choice of the original mono track, or
a 5.1 mix. The 5.1 mix was a little more open, but not to a huge
degree. Both sounded very good. The audio is clean and bright,
with no distortion or audio defects. It suits the movie perfectly.
There are subtitles in French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Thai, and
Video: This transfer is beautiful. The full frame
picture is clean and clear, with crisp lines and fantastic detail.
The encoding is excellent, with digital artifacts being almost nonexistent.
It is had to believe that this film is over seventy years old.
I doubt you will ever see this film look any better.
As with most of the other Chaplin movies that WB has released, this
DVD is chocked full of extras!
Introduction by David Robinson (5 min): The Chaplin biographer
gives a short overview of Chaplin's life at the time he made City Lights,
and recaps the movie. A nice brief overview putting the movie in
context of Chaplin's life.
Chaplin Today: City Lights (26 minutes): Another
in a series of featurettes about each of Chaplin's films. This time
Peter Lord, from Wallace and Gromit fame, analysis the movie and talks
about why it works so well.
Outtake (10 min): A scene that was removed from the film
before its initial release. A funny scene where the Tramp tries to
remove a stick lodged in a grate with his cane. The scene is excellent,
but Chaplin felt that it interrupted the flow of the story so he cut it.
The Champion (10 min): An excerpt from Chaplin's 1915 Essanay
movie that has a fight scene similar to the one in City Lights.
I would have much preferred the entire movie rather than this extended
section, but it is still fun to watch.
Shooting (8 min): Alternate takes from the scene where
Charlie and the flower girl first meet.
Georgia Hale screen test (7 min): Near the end of the production,
Chaplin fired co-star Virginia Cherrill and tried to find a replacement
for her. He auditioned his leading lady from The Gold Rush
and this is the screen test he gave her.
The Dream Prince (1 min): A discarded scene where the flower
girl imagines her benefactor.
Rehearsal (1 min): A short bit where Chaplin works out
the staging for a scene.
Chaplin and Boxing Stars (4 min): Chaplin hamming it up
with boxing stars.
Winston Churchill's Visit (2 min): The famous British statesman
(before he was PM) visits the set of City Lights.
Chaplin Speaks (3 min): Chaplin talking to a newsreel reporter
in Vienna during a tour of Europe. This is the first time Chaplin
spoke on film.
Trip to Bali (10 min): Charlie and Sydney Chaplin in Bali
Photo Gallery: Some production stills from the movie.
Film Posters: A selection of movie posters advertising City
Lights from all around the world. It includes original releases
and re-issue posters.
Trailers (8 min): A collection of trailers promoting City
Chaplin Collection (12 min): A selection of scenes from
each of the movies in the Chaplin Collection.
These extras are a great bonus! Clips of this footage have been
shown in various Chaplin documentaries and specials over the years, and
it is great to see the whole piece instead of a few seconds. Sure
to please any Chaplin fan.
This DVD is a no-brainer for me. City Lights is a masterpiece,
and this DVD has a beautiful transfer and a bonus disc filled with great
extras. This is a must for any serious film collection.
DVD Collector's Series.