Comic Perfection: My Blu-ray Review of City Lights

A great comedy seamlessly mixes a good story, an intelligent observation on the human condition, and a lot of laughs. Everything works together, and only on the third or fourth viewing do you become aware of how the filmmakers balanced all these ingredients, so that the gags and the emotional reality compliment each other instead of clashing. And even after all those viewings, you still laugh–and sometimes cry.

Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece,City Lights, must rank amongst the greatest comedies ever made. In no other film did the three elements of Chaplin’s work–slapstick comedy, pathos, and social commentary–mix so effortlessly. As his tramp romances and deceives a blind flower girl, and befriends a rich drunk, everything works perfectly.

Speaking of rich drunks, before he became the Little Tramp, Chaplin won fame on the British Music Hall stage playing just that role. He revised the part in several of his shorts, including “The Idle Class.” This time, rather than playing the part himself, he hired Harry Myers, who carries the assignment well. It’s a difficult role, but Myers (pretty much forgotten except for City Lights) is up to it. When he’s drunk, he’s boisterous, generous, friendly, and embraces the Tramp as his best friend, although he sometimes turns suicidal. When he’s sober (which pretty much means he’s hung-over), he’s remote, angry, and doesn’t recognize the Tramp.

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Myers proves an excellent comic foil for Chaplin–no easy feat for anyone. In their comic scenes together, he matches Chaplin’s razor-sharp timing; the two work together like pieces of a clock.

Also central to the story is the Tramp’s relationship with the blink flower girl (Virginia Cherrill, who, like Myers, is only remembered for this film). The sound of a car door closing (which we don’t hear) makes her assume that the Tramp is a millionaire, and he plays along with the charade.

If she could see his ragged clothes, of course, she would know better. Some of the best gags in the movie revolve around his deception backfiring on him.

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Chaplin filled City Lights great, one-off gags and brilliant, extended comedy sequences as tightly choreographed as ballet. Consider Myers’ first scene, when the Tramp saves the millionaire from a suicide attempt and they both end up in the river. Or the boxing match where the Tramp, desperate to win money for the girl,  fights a man far stronger than himself.

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City Lights is both Chaplin’s first sound film and his penultimate silent. During the more than two years he spent working on it, the American silent cinema died, and the theaters fired all of their musicians. Chaplin, already the producer, director, writer, and star of his films, became the composer as well, creating a score that makes up the entire soundtrack.

He also created two sequences that are completely dependent on sound effects–scenes that would not have worked in a truly silent film. One of these, the film’s opening, manages to  lampoon both talking pictures and pompous dignitaries.

The film’s closing, which requires no sound effects, is probably the most emotionally-charged close-up in the history of cinema.

First Impression

imageFollowing Criterion’s new policy, the City Lights package contains both a Blu-ray and a DVD. Their contents are identical–or at least as identical as they can be considering the obvious advantages of Blu-ray.

The cover sports a cartoon of Chaplin smelling a flower. Inside the case, in addition to the discs, you’ll find a 40-page booklet. The bulk of the pages contain two large articles on Chaplin’s work. It also contains credits for the film and the transfer.

The discs themselves are stacked one on top of the other. I don’t like this increasingly common configuration. You have to take out the top disc and put it somewhere safe to play the bottom one.

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Like all Criterion Blu-ray discs, this one has a timeline, so you can bookmark favorite moments. When you insert the disc for anything other than the first time, it will ask if you want to start where you left off.

How Does It Look

The first thing you’ll likely notice is how narrow the image looks. City Lights was originally screened in the early talkie aspect ratio of 1.19×1. It looks almost square.

General sharpness and detail are fine, if not exceptional by Blu-ray standards. I’ve seen better transfers from films of this vintage.

How Does It Sound

Criterion presents Chaplin’s original soundtrack in uncompressed PCM mono. This is probably as good as it sounded with he signed off on it in the mixing stage. Maybe better.

Criterion didn’t include the Carl Davis modern-day re-recording of the score that came on the first DVD. I believe that the Chaplin estate blocked it. That doesn’t bother me in the slightest.

And the Extras

A lot of supplements here. This is, after all, Criterion.

  • Audio commentary by Jeffrey Vance. As I write this, I haven’t had a chance to listen to it.
  • Chaplin Today: “City Lights”: This 27-minute documentary on the film was directed by Serge Bromberg. Although it covers some “making of” stuff, it mostly concentrates on why the film is so good. Aardman Animations’ Peter Lord offers some excellent insight into the art of physical comedy and how Chaplin fit into British stage tradition.
  • Chaplin Studios: Creative Freedom By Design: 16 minutes. Made and narrated by visual effects expert Craig Barron, this short discusses Chaplin’s working methods, concentrating on City Lights but not exclusively so. There’s a lot here about art direction and sets, and why Chaplin avoided locations.
  • From the Set of City Lights: About 18 minutes. Outtakes, deleted scenes, rehearsal footage, and so on. No music.
  • The Champion: 10-minute excerpt from an early Chaplin short which, like one scene in City Lights, takes place in a boxing ring. Music by Robert Israel.
  • Boxing Stars Visit the Studio: 5 minutes. No sound.
  • Trailers.

Charles S. Chaplin was one of the cinema’s greatest artists. This is his best film. What else can I say?

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