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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

Fullscreen 1.33:1
English Dolby Digital 5.1
English Monaural

Runtime: 83 min.
Price: $29.95
Release Date: 3/2/2004

• Introduction by Chaplin Biographer David Robinson
• “Chaplin Today” Documentary
• Outtake
• Excerpt from  The Champion
• “Shooting” Footage
• Georgia Hale Screen Test
• “The Dream Prince” Discarded Idea
• Rehearsal Footage
• “Chaplin and Boxing Stars” Footage
• Winston Churchill’s Visit
• “Chaplin Speaks!” Featurette
• “Trip to Bali” Footage
• Photo Gallery
• Poster Gallery
• Theatrical Trailers
• Scenes from Films in the Chaplin Collection

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City Lights: The Chaplin Collection (1931)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 2, 2004)

As I noted in my review of The Gold Rush, I have much greater familiarity with Charlie Chaplin as a cultural icon than as a filmmaker or actor. However, because I want to review as many of the American Film Institute’s “Top 100” movies as possible and three of his efforts appear on that list, I’ve had to check out some of his work.

To my surprise, I’ve actually 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 was the weakest of the bunch; I liked it, but I took more from the other two flicks.

While Rush had 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.

It’s his attempts to secure some loot in Depression-era America that 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 AEM 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 can finally make some progress, he falls back to earth. The Tramp also attempts to wrangle some 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 silliness evident in this scene is sublimely wonderful; even if the remainder of the film stunk, that one segment alone would redeem it.

Happily, the rest of Lights actually is pretty good, though I still think Rush was funnier. A restaurant meal of spaghetti and a chair contribute to a couple of other successful gags as Lights provides a consistently amusing experience.

If I had to pick a flaw in the movie - and other Chaplin efforts - it would come from their vague lack of coherence. Much of Lights felt like a variety of skits that had been cobbled together to serve a generic plot. Actually, that same criticism can apply to a number of other comedies of the era. I don’t have a lot of experience with the movies of this period, but I saw similar construction in W.C. Fields’ The Bank Dick and the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup; both movies felt like gags with a storyline 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. Actually, one of the reasons the movie seems so memorable results from its very bittersweet ending; I don’t want to spoil it, but the conclusion is surprisingly ambivalent, which helps make the film all the more charming.

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

The DVD Grades: Picture B+/ Audio B/ Bonus B

City Lights appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Most of the time the picture looked amazingly good for its age, but some niggling concerns knocked down my grade below “A” territory.

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 created a few distractions. I saw no issues due to jagged edges or moiré effects, but some mild edge enhancement showed up periodically throughout the movie.

Black levels looked nicely deep and dense for the most part. Periodically they were slightly grey, but they mostly seemed solid. 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 looked virtually free from any other form of physical defect. Although the image still featured a few concerns, I thought it deserved an “B+“, as one normally wouldn’t find such an old movie in such great shape.

While the City Lights DVD provided a new Dolby Digital 5.1 remix, don’t expect much from it. The concept of a 5.1 track for what was originally a silent movie seems odd to me, and this one came across as 5.1 in name only. The whole thing sounded very monaural to me. If any examples of stereo music or anything else occurred, I didn’t notice it; I got the impression all the audio remained oriented in the center.

Not that I found much sound on which to comment. 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, for music filled the overwhelming majority of this mix. 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. A little background noise appeared at times, but this stayed minor. The audio didn’t offer much, but given the age of the material, it sounded quite good.

As a two-DVD package, City Lights packs some supplements on its second platter. We open with an Introduction from Chaplin biographer David Robinson. In this five-minute and 20-second piece, he gives us some general notes about the film and its production. It’s a quick and moderately engaging program.

Entitled Chaplin Today: City Lights, the next piece runs 26 minutes and 45 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.

Next we get an outtake. Briefly referenced in Robinson’s introduction, this seven-minute clip 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.

When we examine “Documents”, we find eight subdomains. Shooting offers seven minutes and 55 seconds of behind the scenes footage. The absence of sound limits this material’s usefulness, but it’s still very cool to see. Georgia Hale Screen Test lasts six and a half minutes and shows the bits Chaplin shot with the actress he thought might replace Cherrill.

For The Dream Prince, we get a discarded fantasy idea. It envisions the tramp as an elegant and suave man, as the flower girl imagines him, and it lasts 68 seconds. Rehearsal fills 80 seconds as we watch Chaplin practice the scene in which he almost falls in the sidewalk elevator hole.

Chaplin and Boxing Stars runs four minutes, 20 seconds, as it shows Charlie while he play-acts with pugilists who visited his studio. Winston Churchill’s Visit takes 115 seconds to depict Chaplin as he clowns around at the studio with the great British leader.

The only sound component in this area, Chaplin Speaks! presents a German newsreel. It lasts three and a half minutes as we see police carry Chaplin through a throng of fans in Austria. It concludes with a few seconds of speech from Chaplin, who says very little. Trip to Bali fills nine minutes, 55 seconds and goes the travelogue route as we watch Chaplin’s footage of his vacation.

After this we find a nine and a half minute excerpt from Chaplin’s 1916 short The Champion. It appears here because it connects to the boxing match in Lights, and it’s a fun addition, though it’d be even nicer to get the whole thing.

In the trailers area, we get reissue ads. These come in English, French, and German. This eight-minute and 23-second package of trailers offers some good stuff.

Inside the Photo Gallery, we get six subsections of material. It splits into “Statue and Elephant” (42 stills), “Flowers” (50 shots), “Cane In the Grating” (nine), “Miscellaneous” (26), “The Singing Chaplin” (six), and “Italia 1954” (11). These lack the depth of the photos found on some of the other Chaplin DVDs, but they provide a decent collection. Film Posters provides more stills, as we see 26 ads from different eras and nations.

Lastly, DVD Two provides a package called The Chaplin Collection. This features short clips from the following flicks: The Kid, A Woman of Paris, The Gold Rush, The Circus, City Lights, Modern Times, The Great Dictator, Monsieur Verdoux, Limelight, A King in New York, and The Chaplin Revue.

One nice touch: most of the DVD’s supplements include subtitles in English and a mix of other languages. Other than on DVDs from Paramount and DreamWorks, text accompaniment for extras occurs exceedingly infrequently, so the additional subtitles are much welcomed here.

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 movie looks and sounds better than ever, and the DVD’s extras add some erratic but useful information about the flick and its creator. All Chaplin fans will want to get this new version of City Lights, as it clearly seems like the best edition on the market.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.6097 Stars Number of Votes: 41
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