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Charles Chaplin
Charles Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Florence Lee, Harry Myers, Al Ernest Garcia, Hank Mann
Writing Credits:
Charles Chaplin

The story of City Lights is simple. The Little Tramp meets a beautiful blind girl selling flowers on the sidewalk who mistakes him for a wealthy duke. When he learns that an operation may restore her sight, he sets off to earn the money she needs to have the operation. In a series of comedy adventures that only Chaplin could pull off, he eventually succeeds, even though his efforts land him in jail. While he is there, the girl has the operation and afterwards yearns to meet her benefactor. The closing scene in which she discovers that he is not a wealthy duke but only The Little Tramp was described by critic James Agee as "the highest moment in movies" and brought audiences to tears.

Rated G

Aspect Ratio: 1.19:1
English PCM Monaural
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 83 min.
Price: $39.95
Release Date: 11/12/2013

• Audio Commentary with Film Historian Jeffrey Vance
• “Chaplin Today” Documentary
• “Chaplin Studios: Creative Freedom By Design” Featurette
• “From the Set of City Lights Footage
• Excerpts from 1915’s The Champion
• “Boxing Stars Visit the Studio” Footage
• Theatrical Trailers
• Booklet


Panasonic 50" TH-50PZ77U 1080p Plasma Monitor; Sony STR-DG1200 7.1 Channel Receiver; Panasonic DMP-BD60K Blu-Ray Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.


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City Lights: Criterion Collection [Blu-Ray] (1931)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 3, 2013)

Before this site existed, I knew Charlie Chaplin more as a cultural icon than as a filmmaker or actor. However, the requirements of this site – and the support of our ”AFI 100” pages - means I’ve watched a mix of Chaplin works over the last 15 years.

To my surprise, I’ve enjoyed much of Chaplin’s material. The Gold Rush offered a clever and heartfelt little comedy, and 1931’s City Lights also provides a fairly charming and amusing experience. However, Lights - which falls in between The Gold Rush and 1936’s Modern Times when viewed chronologically - probably seems the weakest of the three I watched for the AFI list. I like it, but I take more from the other two flicks.

While Rush has some romantic aspects, Lights much more strongly emphasizes the love story elements and makes them its central focus. In this film, “A Tramp” (Chaplin) meets and falls for “A Blind Girl” (Virginia Cherrill). She needs money to make sure her grandmother isn’t booted out of their home, and the Tramp tries to help through a variety of methods.

The Tramp’s attempts to secure some loot in Depression-era America garner the film’s main laughs. One recurring theme shows the Tramp and his erratic friendship with “An Eccentric Millionaire” (Harry Myers). Actually, he should have been named “A Drunken, Forgetful Millionaire” because EM consistently befriends the Tramp while toasted but then forgets - and rebuffs - him while sober.

That side of the story befits the Tramp’s “can’t get a break” life; just when he thinks he will make progress, he falls back to earth. The Tramp also attempts to net dough through various jobs, most significantly as a fighter; he takes on a boxing match with genuinely hilarious results.

That bout stands as easily the best part of Lights. I never much cared for slapstick, but the scene exudes sublime silliness; even if the remainder of the film stunk, that one segment alone would redeem it.

Happily, the rest of Lights actually seems pretty good, though I still think Rush boasts more laughs. A restaurant meal of spaghetti contributes another successful gag, as Lights provides a consistently amusing experience.

If forced to pick a flaw in this movie, it would come from their vague lack of coherence. Much of Lights feels like a collection of skits cobbled together to serve a generic plot.

Actually, that same criticism can apply to a number of other comedies of the era. I saw similar construction in W.C. Fields’ The Bank Dick and the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, as both movies feel like gags with storylines superimposed upon them.

City Lights probably holds together better than either of those, largely because of the touching relationship between the Tramp and the Blind Girl. One of the reasons the movie becomes memorable results from its very bittersweet ending; I don’t want to spoil it, but the conclusion appears surprisingly ambivalent, which helps make the film all the more charming.

I don’t think that City Lights stands as the best film made by Charlie Chaplin, but it provides a witty and moving experience. A variety of slapstick gags offers the requisite laughs, while a tender and heartfelt performance by Chaplin allows the film to become emotional and winning. Even for someone who never much cared for silent comedies, City Lights stands as a compelling experience.

The Blu-ray Grades: Picture B/ Audio B/ Bonus B

City Lights appears in an aspect ratio of 1.19:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. Though not as impressive as some other restorations of films from the same era, Lights still looked good.

Some issues related to softness appeared at times. Wide shots occasionally came across as a little indistinct and mildly blurry, and even some close-ups demonstrated similar concerns. While the majority of the movie appeared accurate and reasonably concise, softness could appear. I saw no issues due to jagged edges or moiré effects, and neither edge enhancement nor digital noise reduction seemed to cause distractions.

Black levels looked nicely deep and dense, while contrast levels were positive. Low-light situations were accurately displayed and seemed appropriately well defined.

Despite the very advanced age of Lights, the print came largely free from flaws. Probably the biggest intrusion stemmed from some white flashes that popped up sporadically. Some flickering also appeared at times. Other than the occasional spot, thin line or speck, however, the film remained clean. Again, I’ve seen better transfers for 1920s films, but this was still a more than satisfactory reproduction.

In terms of audio, the Blu-ray went with the film’s original PCM monaural mix. No speech occurred, unless we consider some buzzing noises that equated for dialogue early in the film. Only a few effects – like a gunshot – popped up as well, so music filled the overwhelming majority of this track.

The score sounded fine but never more than that. Music was clean and clear and showed adequate range, but I didn’t find the results to come across with much richness or dimensionality. The audio didn’t offer much, but given the age of the material, it sounded good.

How did the Blu-ray compare to the ”Chaplin Collection” DVD from 2004? Audio came with a change; the 2004 DVD included the original mono and a 5.1 remix, whereas the Blu-ray went just with the former. That was fine with me; I’m not a huge fan of multichannel remixes anyway, especially when they’re as pointless as the 2004 5.1 version was. The Blu-ray’s mono was cleaner and smoother than the DVD’s material.

As for visuals, I thought the Blu-ray was tighter and more film-like, though it wasn’t the radical leap I might’ve expected. Both showed similar patterns of strengths and weaknesses, so I’d chalk up differences to standard format-based improvements. That said, the Blu-ray was the stronger of the two and a clear winner.

The Criterion Blu-ray mixes new extras with some from the 2004 DVD. In the “new” category, we find an audio commentary from film historian Jeffrey Vance. In his running, screen-specific chat, he discusses cast and crew, story/character areas, various production details, and thoughts about the movie’s reception/legacy.

On the negative side, Vance occasionally tends to simply narrate the film and describe what we see. That trend doesn’t pop up often enough to harm the track, though, as Vance usually gives us a nice mix of insights. We learn a fair amount about the movie in this mostly satisfying chat.

Also found on the 2004 DVD, Chaplin Today: City Lights runs 26 minutes and 48 seconds. It shows bits from the movie, some archival and historical materials, and also provides narration and remarks from animation artist and director Peter Lord. We hear about Chaplin’s reaction to the introduction of sound films, his use of repeated rehearsals and takes, and some deconstruction of Chaplin’s comedic techniques.

We get a general feeling for parts of the production, but much of the piece gives us interpretation from Lord. Too much of “Today” falls in that category, unfortunately, as we find lots of Lord’s rambling about how great Chaplin was. The occasional bits about the making of the movie – such as the animosity between Chaplin and his leading lady – seem much more compelling, but because they appear infrequently, this is a pretty spotty program and not one that does much for me.

A new featurette called Chaplin Studios: Creative Freedom By Design fills 16 minutes, 14 seconds and offers notes from visual effects expert Craig Barron. We see archival elements and learn about the methods/locations he used to create his films. We get some nice notes and insights into Chaplin’s work.

Four segments appear under From the Set of City Lights. We see “The Tramp Meets the Flower Girl” (8:35), “Stick Stuck in the Grate” (7:25), “Window-Shopping Rehearsal” (1:24) and “The Duke” (1:14). For “Girl”, we view Chaplin as director and hear commentary from historian Hooman Mehran. Of course, it’d be more useful with sound from the set, but Mehran fleshes out the visuals well, and it’s nice to get a look behind the scenes.

Essentially a deleted scene, “Stick” shows the Tramp as he tries to get a bit of wood out of a sidewalk. It’s an interesting comedic bit but it seems too long to fit into the final film. “Rehearsal” gives us exactly what it implies, as Chaplin works out a particular gag, while “Duke” envisions the tramp as an elegant and suave man, as the flower girl imagines him. Both offer useful material.

Under “Chaplin the Boxer”, we locate two elements. First come a nine-minute, 22-second Excerpt from The Champion. Given the presence of some boxing in City Lights, this clip from the 1915 Champion acts as an antecedent, and a fun one, though it’s too bad the disc doesn’t simply include the entire short. After all, Champion runs a mere 31 seconds, so it easily would have fit on the Blu-ray.

Boxing Stars Visit the Studio runs four minutes, 40 seconds, as it shows Charlie while he play-acts with pugilists who visited his studio. It’s insubstantial but fun.

In the trailers area, we get reissue ads. These come in English, French, and German. This eight-minute and 47-second package of trailers offers some good stuff.

A second disc provides a DVD copy of City Lights. This includes all the same extras as the Blu-ray.

Finally, the set delivers a 40-page booklet. It features an essay from critic Gary Giddins as well as a 1967 interview with Chaplin. Both components work well, but the interview proves to be the more interesting of the two.

Extras scorecard: the Criterion disc adds the commentary, the “Creative Freedom” featurette and the booklet. It loses an intro from Chaplin biographer David Robinson, a screen test for Georgia Hale, a clip with Chaplin and Winston Churchill, a newsreel with Chaplin in Austria, footage of Chaplin on vacation in Bali and some photo galleries.

In City Lights we find the second of Charlie Chaplin’s three most acclaimed comedies. It lacks the consistent laughs of The Gold Rush and the social commentary of Modern Times but it still works nicely as a bittersweet love story. The Blu-ray offers good picture and audio along with a fairly interesting set of supplements. Criterion manages to produce a satisfying edition of a classic comedy.

To rate this film, visit the Charlie Chaplin Collection review of CITY LIGHTS

Review Archive:  # | A-C | D-F | G-I | J-L | M-O | P-R | S-U | V-Z | Viewer Ratings | Main