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 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 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.
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.