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Charles Chaplin's City Lights is his most impressive feature, and the one that best displays his brilliance with sentimental content. His first sound film refuses to become a "talkie", instead holding out for the purity and universal communication of silent cinema. Chaplin's films always relied more on pantomime than up-to-date visuals, building on a character known the world 'round. City Lights expresses everything already loved about Chaplin's the Little Tramp and develops him an extra few paces forward. Social and political messages would come later. Using slapstick comedy, Chaplin reaches depths of human feeling seldom seen since.
The story finds our Tramp character broke and alone in the city, and proceeds to involve him in some very simple narrative threads. He falls in love with a blind girl (Virginia Cherrill) who mistakenly thinks him to be a wealthy, noble benefactor. The Tramp takes great risks, including climbing into a boxing ring, to earn enough money for her eye operation. His fortunes keep shifting, especially as concerns a real millionaire who when drunk is his best friend, and when sober does not remember him. The story is just a pretext for (superb) comedy set pieces, but the emotions seem more honest than ever. Except for general observations about being Rich and being Poor, there's not a message in sight.
City Lights uses situations of pathos without abusing our feelings. The comic and the tragic are inseparable. The Little Tramp has mellowed somewhat. He's no longer the wholly unpredictable, not-always-sociable scamp from the silent days, the one fully capable of minor malice. The Depression seems to have made him less resilient. More ragged than ever, he'd be happy just to get by. Chaplin takes risks by putting the Little Tramp in situations in which he doesn't prevail. When things go wrong he can't simply "slapstick" his way in and out of jail. By the end of the show he's beaten down, and in unusually bad shape.
As documented on the disc, the director racked up hundreds of takes shooting the meeting of the Little Tramp and the Flower Girl. He burned film while searching for problem-solving inspirations. It's amazing that the result of Chaplin's endless rehearsals looks so fresh. Actress Virginia Cherrill is so good that we have difficulty believing that Chaplin found working with her to be an endless trial. She apparently had independent ideas (oh no!) and didn't simply accede to her director's every wish. In the next two films Paulette Goddard seems far too eager to please. She comes off as just an extension of Chaplin's ego, and there's no conflict. Here the vulnerability of the Little Tramp is heightened by the disconnect ... almost alone among Chaplin's early female stars, we don't get the idea that Cherrill is there because she's sleeping with the boss.
Chaplin's bout with Hank Mann is still the funniest, most original comic boxing scene on film, after nearly a century of similar scenes by practically every comedian who made movies. But even it has a dark ending, to help set up the film's unbelievably perfect final scene. After a stint in prison, the ragged Tramp accidentally comes upon the love of his life, who will finally learn the truth about him. Consisting of only a few shots, this is surely among the most accomplished sequences ever filmed. Chaplin's face expresses more human emotion than seems possible. The sight gags and contrivances suddenly coalesce into a painfully intense moment of drama, that crosses all language and culture barriers.
Criterion's DVD + Blu-ray of City Lights is among the first group of releases in their new Dual-Format policy. In a press release a number of weeks ago the company explained that doubling up on the discs made better business sense than continuing to produce parallel standard and HD editions. The pricing hasn't changed, so the benefit is all with the consumer.
When Warner Home Video released the Chaplin movies ten years ago their tape masters were converted from PAL transfers, resulting in a 4% increase in speed. With a running time a full four minutes shorter every scene was impacted negatively. Criterion's new releases are correct, and the ones to hold on to.
Criterion has retained some of the excellent excellent extras on that earlier Mk2-produced disc, including the 26-minute Chaplin Today documentary and archive footage of costume tests, filmed rehearsals and Ralph Barton's behind-the-scenes footage. A new featurette Creative Freedom by Design is hosted by Craig Barron. An excerpt from Chaplin's 1915 The Champion shows an earlier boxing scene with the Little Tramp. The insert booklet contains an essay by Gary Giddins and a Chaplin interview from 1966.
The new commentary is by Jeffrey Vance, who has fascinating stories to tell about every scene. The rowdy newsboy who pesters The Tramp is played by future editor and director Robert Parrish (seen holding Chaplin's cane, just above). Chaplin normally composed all of his own music, but we also discover that he was so enamored of the song La Violetera by the Spanish zarzuela composer José Padilla, that he took the highly unusual step of licensing it. A title card was later altered to reflect Padilla's contribution.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
City Lights Blu-ray + DVD rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.