Charlie Chaplin delivers a well-rounded classic
Loves: Classic comedies
Likes: Charlie Chaplin, good slapstick
Dislikes: Most silent films
Hates: Most modern slapstick
This film is another tale of the Tramp (Chaplin), a lovable scamp making him way through the world, when he meets a lovely young lady selling flowers on the street. He soon finds out this woman is blind, while she determines, through a bit of mistaken identity, that he is a rich gentleman who could solve all her problems. Meanwhile, the Tramp meets a real millionaire suffering from a drunken depression, saving him from a bad decision and becoming his best friend in the process...at least while the rich guy is drunk. These two relationships built around false pretenses make up the bulk of the film, and power it toward an ending that is utter fantasy yet grounded is heart-felt emotion, making it an impressive blend of comedy and romance, especially when expressed without dialogue (an interesting element in and of itself, as Chaplin refused to give in to the idea of the talkie, which had already gained dominance years earlier).
Chaplin's slapstick abilities are at their peak, whether he's walking a figurative tightrope on the edge of a chasm or perilously hanging from a sword, but he balances that with the tender scenes between the Tramp and the Flower Girl (though even these are often undercut by a gag.) That the Tramp has a genuine sense of self-respect only makes the gags he falls victim to all the more entertaining. It may be simple, but a simple cup of water brings big laughs when his dignity is washed away.
Though Chaplin notoriously labored over his set pieces, planning, evolving and perfecting them with an obsessive eye for detail, when compared with the work of Lloyd, the bits in this film have more of a spontaneous energy, which is good and bad, as Lloyd's are more complex and well-constructed, but Chaplin is more in the moment. At the same time, Chaplin frequently seems to be padding out his "business." For instance, in the boxing scene, he repeats bits of the performance practically move by move, which takes away from the artistry, especially when put smack up against better, more interesting parts, like the brilliant use of the ring bell. Perhaps the interplay of the comic and serious, but City Lights feels like it drags a bit at points (the Tramp's efforts to earn money through legitimate work being one slow portion in particular.) Fortunately, the rest of the funny stuff is more than enough to make up for it. Chaplin's skill as a filmmaker is equally impressive, as the movie features advanced techniques and an eye for style well ahead of his contemporaries.
The PCM 1.0 audio manages the trick of sounding like an old-school audio track like one you'd expect for silent film from the early 20th Century, while being clean and clear of issues with audio defects. The music and sound effects all enjoy quality strength and clarity. This is as good as this film is going to sound.
A 2003 entry from the Chaplin Today series, focused on City Lights (26:47) offers a wonderful appreciation for the film, as Aardman Animation co-founder Peter Lord breaks down several key scenes, sharing his thoughts and theories about silent films and Chaplin's craft. It makes a nice complement to "Chaplin Studios: Creative Freedom by Design" (16:!3) which features effects expert Craig Barron discussing Chaplin's unique filmmaking process, including his on-location efforts, the sets created at his independent studio and his use of special effects, via behind the scenes footage and Barron's own materials (similar to the info he provided for Criterion's release of Safety Last!.) Though City Lights is the focus, Barron pulls examples from several other Chaplin productions, making for a well-rounded examination of the man's work.
"From the Set of City Lights" is a set of four clips, running a total of 18:37, that feature either behind-the-scenes material or a deleted scene. There's footage of Chaplin shooting the first key scene in the film, with commentary by historian Hooman Mehran, which shows how hard the Tramp could be to work with and an audio-free deleted scene (7:25) of the Tramp messing with a stick stuck in a grate and a window-dresser stuck behind glass, which easily could have remained in the finished film. Some rehearsal footage of a set-up that's different from what made it into the movie (1:24) and a costume test (1:14) of Chaplin for a moment that was cut from the movie. You don't see a lot of this kind of content for films from the ‘30s, so their inclusion is certainly welcome.
Two entries look at Chaplin's connection to boxing, which is a big part of City Lights. First is a 9:21 excerpt from The Champion, a boxing match from an older film that shows a few early versions of gags that returned in this movie. Not only can you compare the fighting, you can see how Chaplin's film technique improved as well. Then there's "Boxing Stars Visit the Studio" (4:39), which sees Chaplin play-fight with a pair of real pugilists. Again, this lets you see Chaplin trying out some of the moves you see in the movie (and just goofing off.)
Rounding out the on-disc extras is a reel of trailers for the film (8:46) from the U.S., France and Germany. The voiceover for the German trailer, which basically walks you through the entire plot, is so very German it's hysterical.
In addition to details about the release, the thick, starkly-designed booklet includes "The Immortal Tramp," an essay on Chaplin's character, focusing on City Lights by biographer Gary Giddins, and "Chaplin's Anatomy of Comedy," which is reprinted from a 1967 issue of Life Magazine. While Giddins' piece is in-depth and informative, the Life piece is invaluable, as the thoughts are coming directly from Chaplin and cover a wide swath of film and life, from his theories on comedy and his work with Marlon Brando to his general distaste for movie stars. It's a must-read for anyone into movies.
Though Criterion has added in some excellent new bonus features, a few from Warner Brothers' long out-of-print DVD release have not been carried over, including the intro from biographer David Robinson, the oft-mentioned screentest with Georgia Hale, Winston Churchill's set visit, a brief newsreel interview with Chaplin, a home movie of Chaplin and his brother in Bali and the still photo and poster galleries. This is pretty interesting material, so its exclusion is disappointing.
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