Blu-ray
Highly Recommended
4 stars
Overall Grade
4 stars

(click linked text below to jump to related section of the review)

The Movie Itself
5 Stars
HD Video Quality
3 Stars
HD Audio Quality
3.5 Stars
Supplements
3.5 Stars
High-Def Extras
0 Stars
Bottom Line
Highly Recommended

City Lights

Street Date:
November 12th, 2013
Reviewed by:
Review Date: 1
December 17th, 2013
Movie Release Year:
1931
Studio:
Criterion
Length:
0 Minutes
MPAA Rating:
Unrated
Release Country
United States

The Movie Itself: Our Reviewer's Take

In 1927, Hollywood underwent one of its most important paradigm shifts with the release and huge success of 'The Jazz Singer,' the first feature to have synchronized dialogue. Studios and filmmakers around the world began the transition to "talkies," yet in 1931, Charlie Chaplin released 'City Lights' with only sound effects and synchronized music, which he predominantly composed. It is an amazing film and arguably his best because of how well he blends comedy and drama together.

It opens with a grand unveiling of a statue. Chaplin comments on blowhard public officials as well as the new sound craze by having kazoos blown as they speak. When the sheet is pulled away, the Tramp is revealed sleeping in the woman's lap, showing how dire things are for him as laying on stone under a sheet is the only comfort he's likely experienced in a while. Wandering through the city, the Tramp reveals that even though he has an impoverished appearance and situation, he can still appreciate beauty, as shown in a gag where he nearly falls into a loading elevator while admiring a statue of a woman's body. Soon after, he becomes infatuated with a blind girl (Virginia Cherrill) who sells flowers. As he passes her, the sound of a car door closing gets her attention, causing her to believe it belongs to the Tramp and that he must be wealthy. He does nothing to dissuade her of the idea.

Later that evening, the Tramp encounters an eccentric millionaire (Harry Myers), who is drunk and intending suicide. Though he nearly drowns himself, the Tramp gets the millionaire to reconsider. They go to his home, and after a few more drinks, the millionaire tries again to kill himself before deciding they are going to "burn up the town." Unfortunately when the millionaire sobers up, he has no idea who the Tramp is, and wants nothing to do with him. But once drunk, he becomes his best friend again and will do anything for his pal, offering everything he has and ready to fight anyone that troubles him.

During a visit to the blind girl's home, the Tramp reads to her from the newspaper and they discover a doctor in Vienna not only has found a cure for blindness, but it's free for the poor. She's excited about seeing him, but he's understandably hesitant. He finds the blind girl's overdue rent notice and offers to pay it although he has no money. Passing by a gym, he meets a man with a plan to make some easy cash. If the Tramp takes a dive during a boxing match, he'll split the $50 prize. The Tramp agrees, but when his cohort can't make the fight, the Tramp gets set up with a very strong, no-nonsense palooka that wants the entire prize. In his oddest choice as director, Chaplin has the Tramp behave in an oddly overly effeminate way while trying to suggest the deal. The boxing match has some brilliant physical comedy moves choreographed with the fighters and referee, some of which I recall later appeared in cartoons like people switching positions and not immediately noticing. Credit should go to Chaplin the writer for how the fight concluded because he doesn't make the obvious choice.

The greatest sequence is the film's ending, which I am going to write about, so those who don't want spoilers should skip past the following paragraph.

Through great sacrifice, the Tramp is able to help the blind girl get to Vienna. Months go by, and with a simple costume change to more ragged clothes and a bit of make-up, he looks to be in an even worse condition. The girl has now opened up her own flower shop and wonders if her rich benefactor will ever arrive. She sees the Tramp outside her window, getting picked on by kids. Taking pity on this man, she offers him a flower and some money. He tries to run off but comes back at her request. He can't stop gazing at her and appears to be in a state of bliss. As she feels his hand, her face changes, signaling that she realizes who he is, what he must have sacrificed for her, and that she sees past his outer appearance to the man inside. It's one of the greatest expressions of love to grace the movies.

In later films like 'The Great Dictator' and 'Monsieur Verdoux', Chaplin's character speaks to humanity's better nature at the end of the films. In 'City Lights', he shows us are better natures and showing is always better than telling. Rare is the film that delivers so much emotion and so many laughs.

The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats

'City Lights' (#680 in The Criterion Collection) is a 50GB Region A Blu-ray disc paired with a DVD in a clear keepcase. The discs boot up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements. Included is a 40-page booklet containing "The Immortal Tramp" by Gary Giddens and a "Life" magazine interview from 1967 with Chaplin.

The Video: Sizing Up the Picture

The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.19:1. The liner notes reveal "this new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution on an ARRISCAN film scanner from the original 35mm duplicate negative[s]…thousands of instances 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, and noise management, and flicker.

The opening credits have a light flicker. Typically with silent films, the credits are in the worst condition and then the image improves once the film starts. Regrettably that's not the case here as the flicker continues throughout first scene. During the next scene as the Tramp looks in window, the flicker is more pronounced and is very distracting. When he meets the girl, it lessens but is still apparent, and during the night scenes it reduces even further but can still be made out. It's an issue throughout much of the film and is worst defect I can remember seeing in any Criterion release.

Grain is not distracting. There are slight marks of white and black that surface on occasion. Whites are strong, but blacks fluctuate depending on the brightest of the scene. During the opening scene, the blacks are light and tend more toward gray while during the night scene when Tramp and millionaire meet, the blacks are inky. The image offers good depth and detail, though focus can become soft in parts of the frame at times, which is a source issue. Light bleeds on the right side of the frame during a good many intertitles.

The Audio: Rating the Sound

The audio is available in LPCM 1.0 and "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 track sounds clean, free from defect or wear, but has a limited dynamic range. The bass comes through better than I expected from the orchestra playing the score. The effects are infrequent, mainly comprised of other instruments such as a kazoo a two different types of whistle.

The Supplements: Digging Into the Good Stuff

  • Commentary – Recorded for Criterion in 2013, Jeffrey Vance, author of "Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema", offers a great look at film and the life of Chaplin. It made me want to learn more about Chaplin's creative process, particularly his use of a drunken character once Vance revealed Chaplin's father was an alcoholic who died when Charlie was young boy.
  • Chaplin Today: 'City Lights' (1080i, 27 min) – Serge Bromberg's 2003 documentary is an overview of Chaplin's career. Aardman Animations co-founder Peter Lord is a featured participant.
  • Chaplin Studios: Creative Freedom by Design (HD, 16 min) – Visual effects expert Craig Barron offers background on Chaplin's deal with First National, which allowed him to create his own studio, and examines the set designs and movie magic used, as seen with the cabin in 'The Gold Rush' and a few scenes in 'City Lights'.
  • From the Set of City Lights – Under this menu heading are four featurettes about the making of the film. “The Tramp Meets the Flower Girl” (HD, 9 min) - Chaplin historian Hooman Mehran offers commentary on footage of Chaplin directing in the scene where the Tramp and the ling Girl first meet, a scene which took a stunning 342 takes over a couple years. “Stick Stuck in the Grate” (HD, 7 min) - this outtake of the Tramp playing with a stick on a busy sidewalk was intended to come after the statue unveiling. It's an amusing, but non-essential bit of business. Window-shopping Rehearsal (HD, 1 min) – Chaplin practices the bit with the loading elevator. Interesting to see him with just hat and cane but no mustache. The Duke (HD, 1 min) – Actually not from the set, this is a costume test for an unfilmed scene that was going to show how the Blind Girl imagined the Tramp as a rich man.
  • Chaplin The Boxer – Playing off the boxing sequence in the film, Criterion includes two related featurettes. 'The Champion' (1080i, 9 min) - An excerpt from Chaplin's 1915 short finds the Tramp taking on a fighter in a match that features a lot of physical gags. The score is by Robert Isreal. “Boxing Stars Visit the Studio” (HD, 5 min) – In the first scene, British bantamweight boxer Harry Mansell goofs around as a referee during a match between Chaplin and assistant director Chuck Reismer. The next finds Chaplin taking on American lightweight boxer Benny Leonard. Both scenes were shot in 1918 at Chaplin Studios.
  • Trailers (HD, 9 min) –
    Presented together are trailers from the U.S., France, and Germany. Not sure about the first, but the latter two are for re-releases of the film.

HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?

There are no HD exclusives.

Final Thoughts

Until another company takes a crack at fixing the video issues, my admiration alone for the brilliance of 'City Lights' is why I highly recommend it in spite of the problems I cited. The extras Criterion has included are a welcome bonus that provide great insight into the film and the filmmaker.

Technical Specs

  • BD-50 Blu-ray Disc

Video Resolution/Codec

  • 1080p/AVC MPEG-4

Aspect Ratio(s)

  • 1.33:1

Audio Formats

  • English Uncompressed Mono

Subtitles/Captions

  • English

Supplements

  • New audio commentary by Charlie Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance
  • Chaplin Today: "City Lights," a 2003 documentary on the film's production, featuring Aardman Animations cofounder Peter Lord
  • Chaplin Studios: Creative Freedom by Design, a new interview program featuring visual effects expert Craig Barron
  • Archival footage from the production of City Lights, including film from the set, with audio commentary by Chaplin historian Hooman Mehran; a costume test; a rehearsal; and a complete scene not used in the film
  • Excerpt from Chaplin's short film The Champion (1915), along with footage of the director with boxing stars at Chaplin Studios in 1918
  • Trailers
  • A booklet featuring an essay by critic Gary Giddins and a 1966 interview with Chaplin

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