At one time in America, “The Little Tramp” was one of the most recognized characters in the world. Among classic movie characters, I think Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz” has since surpassed him, but I’ve been doing my part to introduce my own kids (now 8 and 6) to the joys of silent cinema, and Charlie Chaplin is their favorite star from that era. In part, that’s why this review of Criterion’s splendid new Blu-ray of “City Lights” is late in coming; before writing, I wanted to get their reaction, and needed a free afternoon to watch without distractions.
Part of the reason I think Chaplin so fascinates kids is the very childlike nature of the Tramp character himself. Buster Keaton was a genius and certainly daring, but with his stone face, he’s a hard guy to get a read on. We’ve seen Harold Lloyd's “Safety Last” as a family, and laughed heartily during that show, but Chaplin remains the favorite in our house. I think it’s because the Little Tramp is as curious as a child, and “speaks” with the heart of a child as well. And in “City Lights,” The Tramp gives everything he has for love.
Chaplin began production on “City Lights” in 1928, just one year after “The Jazz Singer” dazzled audiences with its synchronized sound and sequences of a singing Al Jolson. Determined to show up talking pictures with the elegance of silence, Chaplin wanted “City Lights” to be the best picture he ever made. It took three years to finish. If you think Stanley Kubrick was notorious for making his actors go through scores of takes on a scene, try Chaplin. The charming scene in which the Tramp first meets his love interest, a blind flower girl, took weeks to film, as Chaplin worked out on set how she could mistake The Tramp for a wealthy man. (The answer, ironically, came from the unheard ‘sound’ of a car door slamming). He even fired his leading lady, Virginia Cherrill, at one point and shot scenes with another actress, but eventually rehired Cherrill.
The plot itself finds the Tramp falling for the blind girl and then trying to find ways to earn money to help her pay her debts and visit a doctor for a miracle cure. The Tramp falls in with a habitually drunken millionare who loves hanging out with his friend when he’s hitting the bottle, but forgets the Tramp in the cold light of day. The Tramp spends time as a street cleaner and amateur boxer, to hilarious results, and in the end, goes to jail after being accused of stealing the millionaire’s money. The final scene, of the now healed flower girl finally meeting her benefector, is one of the greatest emotional moments in film history, precisely for its underplay. As the Tramp, now in rags, visits with the flower girl, he asks if she can see. “Yes, I can see now,” she says, with a double meaning. A smile from the Tramp, and a fade out.
Chaplin was nervous about the way a silent picture would be received long after the advent of talkies, but audiences enthusiastically embraced the romance, and the film has gone on to be recognized by many as Chaplin’s best. In our home, my kids appreciated the comedy, but the movie also opened up a discussion on the couch about homelessness, alcoholism, depression, and the selflessness of the Tramp.
Come to think of it, “City Lights” may be my kids’ first exposure to the concept of deep depression, as I had to explain why the millionaire wanted to throw himself into the river. Of course, shortly after his first attempt, Chaplin himself falls in, and hilarity ensues. But we did pause a moment to talk about the value of life, and how Chaplin brings the millionaire back from the brink of suicide. The millionaire character also offered an opportunity to discuss what happens when you drink too much--in kid terms, you act silly, drive dangerously, and forget everything that happened before. But the best opportunity for a positive message in “City Lights” comes from the love and generosity of the Tramp himself. In “City Lights,” he gives everything for the blind girl with little thought of his own reward. The movie even fades to black before any embrace between the two -- it’s almost as if her happiness alone is enough to sustain the Tramp through a thousand hungry days.
"CITY LIGHTS" on BLU-RAY
“City Lights” is newly available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection, and with this release, the boutique company has done something that I have longed for--they’ve included both a Blu-ray and standard DVD in one package. I suspect there are many like me who still use DVD. At our house, Blu-ray is for the living room, DVD goes in the computer and smaller bedroom TV. Thank you Criterion for finally offering “dual format” releases!
The last time this movie was on disc, it was released stateside by Warner Bros., and some of those special features are included on this disc, including a documentary on the film and archival footage from the set. But new to this release is a terrific new program, “Chaplin Studios: Creative Freedom by Design,” which details some of the innovative visual effects that went into creating this Chaplin masterpiece, including an ingenious use of forced perspective.
An insightful new audio commentary accompanies the feature, which is mastered from a 4K digital transfer. It looks amazing! “City Lights” is a treasure, and this set does the movie justice.