City Lights
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City Lights

One of the greatest things about having a large and diversified collection of movies readily available is that it makes it possible to binge watch a certain genre or artist. The latest subject of such attention for me has been the works of Charlie Chaplin, one of the founding fathers of cinema as an artistic means of expression in movies as a lucrative business even during the Great Depression of the early 30s Mr. Chaplin was able to procure contracts in excess of $1 million that he was never blinded by the incredible potential movies had to make a public statement about many of the inequities inherent in the American social system. One of his films that have recently been inducted into the much lauded Criterion Collection is the 1931 solid classic ‘City Lights’. There are many reasons why this movie deserves meticulous attention afforded to all inductees to the Criterion Collection. By 1931 sound had begun become a staple of movies produced by the major Hollywood studios. Mr. Chapman was never fully convinced that the ‘talkies’ would never be gain a substantial foothold in filmmaking. At one point he was noted to have said that he seriously doubted the fad would last more than three years. While history has proven the cinematic genius to be wrong in this account the power he held in the business side of movies Mr. Chapman was able to make some the last and greatest silent movies ever including the one on the consideration here. As one of the founders of United Artists chapter was able to still continue to write, direct, produce and start in major silent feature films. City Lights, like several other Chaplin classics, would technically classified as crossover movies since although most of the dialogue was provided by title cards there was a modicum of sound effects that would definitely an aspect of the ‘talky’ revolution in movies.

This film is widely considered one of the all-time greatest showcases for Charlie Chaplin most famous, ‘The Little Tramp’. This character was readily identifiable the majority of the audience. He was perpetually broken down on his luck and always trying to find some imaginative way of procuring his next meal or safe place to sleep the night. Dressed in a black suit with a bowler hat, thin cane trademark the rectangular mustache Charlie Chaplin was able to express a wider range of emotions by utilizing his almost preternatural control of his facial expressions and his mastery of mine that highlighted his distinctive waddling walk. Frequent aspect of his movies was to incorporate some social commentary as an integral part of the storyline. One of his later films, ‘The Dictator’, he took advantage of the similarities and mustache styles between himself and the dictator rapidly gaining power in Europe in order to craft the biting satire of the dangers of fascism. In City Lights is keenly observant eye now in its focus to the vast chasm between the rich and the working poor.

Recurring theme present in this film is how the Little Tramp (Charles Chaplin), was constantly crossing paths with an eccentric millionaire (Harry Myers). When he first meets him millionaire is about to attempt suicide by jumping off the peer and drowning himself. Trapped manages to talk them out of it and an appreciation of his kindness the millionaire takes the Tramp back to his mansion. The next morning after sleeping off his inebriation the millionaire does not remember anything about the previous night and has the Little Tramp ejected from his home. During our introduction to this character the audience was over the shown how lamentable is life has been. The local politicians are about to unveil a new statue only to find The Little Tramp sleeping on it. They chase him away when he is only by the newsboys. Even what appears to be such a simple scene as these are highly charged political commentary specific for that time. People out of work and living on the streets the municipal government finds that he can gather the funds for a statue. In this modern age of electronic communication it seems inconceivable that the function such as newsboys was once necessary. Young boys repurchase stacks of newspapers from the publishers.

There’s always some sort of romantic entanglement for the Little Tramp which in this film is found in the character of a blind young woman (Virginia Cherrill) ekes out a meager living by selling flowers on the street. The Tramp asks the millionaire for some money but instead of keeping it for himself he unselfishly uses to buy all the flowers from the young woman. Unable to see she attributes the sound of a luxury car in the funds to buy all the flowers from her to the Tramp being an exceptionally wealthy man. Excitedly she told her grandmother (Florence Lee). Once again the Tramp encounters the millionaire in an inebriated state and is taken out for you talked about the town only to be forgotten about again once a night’s rest has restored sobriety to the wealthy man. I one point he notices that the flower girl is being treated by a doctor. Without a moment of doubt or hesitation the Little Tramp knows that he has to help her out so he finds himself a job as a street sweeper. Think become more dire for the flower girl and her grandmother when they receive a notice that the landlord is about to evict them. Indeed of even more money than his menial job can earn Tramp is approached by a boxer office to split the $50 prize money if he pretends to fight him in the ring. Unfortunately for the Tramp the box he made a deal with was called to rate due to an illness in his family and was replaced by one who has no idea of the arrangements and is out to pummel his opponent to gain the victory.

I realize that there’s a lot of people particular than the younger audience, the may have some trepidation about endeavoring to watch a movie that is not only silent but in black and white with an aspect ratio of 4:3. From a technical perspective it seems as though everything is stacked against this film with the best way to appreciate the technological advances we enjoy today is to go back in time to read the cinema we now enjoy a today and it’s humble beginnings. Chapters directorial style may seem straightforward but as this pristine remastering from the original elements of the film demonstrate Charles Chaplin had an inherent ability to frame a scene which entails not only the placement of the characters in various aspects of the set with the all-important lighting which was made much more difficult because of the primitive nature of the film by today’s standards. As always the Criterion Collection takes great efforts to bringing the best possible technical specifications of the film. The movie has been meticulously remastered to 4K video specifications with a lossless mono soundtrack. This may have been a technically simplistic time film the genius of Charlie Chaplin shines through with his meticulous attention to detail to textures and layering that is largely unmatched even in movies today.

bulletNew digital restoration from a 4K film transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
bulletNew audio commentary by Charlie Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance
bulletChaplin Today: ""City Lights"", a 2003 documentary on the film, featuring Aardman Animations cofounder Peter Lord
bulletChaplin Studios: Creative Freedom by Design, a new interview program featuring visual effects expert Craig Barron
bulletArchival 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
bulletExcerpt from Chaplin’s short film The Champion (1915), along with footage of the director with boxing stars at Chaplin Studios in 1918
bulletPlus: A booklet featuring an essay by critic Gary Giddins and a 1966 interview with Chaplin


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