There he is, in his bowler hat, baggy pants and oversized shoes, twitching his mustache and twirling his cane. Maybe he’s foiling a brute in the park; or rescuing an orphan from authorities; or eating a boot; or insisting a gamine smile; or pulling a fast one on a vicious dictator. Whatever it is, it is with good intentions. The Tramp may be oblivious to his surroundings and actions at times, but he wants the world to be a better place, especially for others.
In CITY LIGHTS, he is at his most heroic. In it, Charlie Chaplin is again The Little Tramp, just trying to make it through another day. And he has; as morning arrives, it’s revealed he’s made a bed out of a new statue in town. He upsets just about everyone in sight and then carries on with his day. In the afternoon, he meets a kind flower saleswoman—listed in the credits as A Blind Girl (Virginia Cherrill, who had appeared in Howard Hawks’ THE AIR CIRCUS in 1928)—who believes The Tramp is wealthy after misbelieving he arrived in a car.
At night, he saves An Eccentric Millionaire (Harry Myers, 1926’s EXIT SMILING) from suicide. The grateful drunkard takes The Tramp back to his home and lends him clothes and money, which he uses to buy all of the girl’s flowers. At one point, The Tramp even takes the girl out in the millionaire’s Rolls-Royce. The millionaire storyline repeats its joke (that, when sober, the man never remembers The Tramp) a number of times—with tremendous comedic effect and certainly not without moving the plot forward—but it’s the flower girl storyline, which involves The Tramp’s raising money for a surgery that could cure her vision, that best illustrates what the character embodies.
There are a number of remarkable scenes in CITY LIGHTS that highlight what a genius Chaplin was and how gifted he was as a performer. Watch as he unknowingly flirts with disaster by ignorantly moving back and forth near an open grate on the sidewalk (an idea that would be played with a bit again in the rollerskating scene in 1936’s MODERN TIMES); or when he accidentally swallows a party favor and can’t stop hiccupping in whistles afterwards; or when he enters the boxing ring, where he uses the ref as a shield and finds the bell cord to be a foe as strong as his gloved opponent.
CITY LIGHTS was released in 1931, when silent films had more or less become obsolete. Chaplin openly hated the idea of sound and so used some of his works at the time to openly mock it. Nowhere is this more apparent than in CITY LIGHTS, in which he takes jabs by having all of the “dialogue” sound like honks and muted trombones (not unlike the adults in the Peanuts cartoons) and by slyly thumbing his nose at the city’s honchos, who stand in for “talkies.”
CITY LIGHTS is incredibly funny, wonderfully romantic and overwhelmingly touching (notably in the final shot, which is one of the finest ever captured). It should be required viewing for all humanity.
Video: 1.19:1 in 1080p with MPEG-4 AVC codec. “This new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution on an ARRISCAN film scanner from a 35 mm duplicate negative at L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, Italy; the final reel was taken from a 35 mm duplicate negative held by the Academy Film Archive in Los Angeles. Thousands of instance of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed using MTI’s DRS, while Digital Vision’s Phoenix was used for small dirt, grain, noise management, and flicker.”
So far, all of Criterion’s Chaplin releases have had stellar video presentations, and CITY LIGHTS is no exception. This transfer features an incredible level of clarity and contrast that make this the finest way to watch CITY LIGHTS on home video.
Audio: English Mono. “The original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a sound negative. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.”
The audio is also admirable, with no detectable flaws and a very clean soundtrack.
Audio commentary by Charlie Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance: Vance, who also did the commentary for Criterion’s release of THE GOLD RUSH, offers an incredibly thorough and well-researched look at both Chaplin and CITY LIGHTS. Vance touches on Chaplin’s disdain for “talkies,” his perfectionism, the cast, the shooting locations, and much more.
CHAPLIN TODAY: “CITY LIGHTS” (26:48): This 2003 documentary looks at Chaplin’s style and legacy, as well as CITY LIGHTS.
Chaplin Studios: Creative Freedom Design (16:14): Visual effects expert Craig Barron (who won an Oscar for his work on THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON) looks at the set design and effects of CITY LIGHTS, in addition to some of his other films such as THE KID and THE GOLD RUSH.
From the Set of CITY LIGHTS: Collected here are four pieces of footage: The Tramp Meets the Flower Girl (8:35), which is accompanied by commentary from Chaplin historian Hooman Mehran; Stick Stuck in the Grate (7:25), an outtake meant to follow the statue scene; Window-Shopping Rehearsal (1:24), featuring Chaplin testing the routine; and The Duke (1:14), a costume test.
Chaplin the Boxer houses two pieces: THE CHAMPION (9:22), Chaplin’s 1915 Essanay comedy featuring The Tramp stepping into the ring; and Boxing Stars Visit the Studio (4:40), which shows boxers Harry Mansell and Benny Leonard visiting Chaplin in 1918.
Also included with this Criterion Collection Blu-ray is a 40-page booklet featuring an essay by critic Gary Giddins and a 1966 interview with Chaplin.