Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: City Lights (1931)
Studio Line: Image Ent.

The story of City Lights is simple. The Little Tramp meets a beautiful blind girl selling flowers on the sidewalk who mistakes him for a wealthy duke. When he learns that an operation may restore her sight, he sets off to earn the money she needs to have the operation. In a series of comedy adventures that only Chaplin could pull off, he eventually succeeds, even though his efforts land him in jail. While he is there, the girl has the operation and afterwards yearns to meet her benefactor. The closing scene in which she discovers that he is not a wealthy duke but only The Little Tramp was described by critic James Agee as "the highest moment in movies" and brought audiences to tears.

Director: Charlie Chaplin
Cast: Charles Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Florence Lee, Harry Myers, Al Ernest Garcia, Hank Mann
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio English Digital Mono, PCM Stereo; subtitles none; single sided - single layered; 20 chapters; Not Rated; 87 min.; $29.99; 2/8/00.
Supplements: Chaplin's own score digitally recorded and married to film. Includes new digital recording of the original score conducted by Carl Davis and Chaplin's original 1931 recording; Interview with musical director Carl Davis; Bonus Materials: Original story notes, production data and publicity items.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: C-/C/C-

As I noted in my review of The Gold Rush, I have much greater familiarity with Charlie Chaplin as a cultural icon than as a filmmaker or actor. However, because I want to review as many of the American Film Institute’s “Top 100” movies as possible and three of his efforts appear on that list, I’ve had to check out some of his work.

To my surprise, I’ve actually enjoyed much of Chaplin’s material. The Gold Rush offered a clever and heartfelt little comedy, and 1931’s City Lights also provides a fairly charming and amusing experience. However, CL - which falls in between The Gold Rush and 1936’s Modern Times when viewed chronologically - probably was the weakest of the bunch; I liked it, but I took more from the other two flicks.

While TGR had romantic aspects, CL much more strongly emphasizes the love story elements and makes them its central focus. In this film, “A Tramp” (Chaplin) meets and falls for “A Blind Girl” (Virginia Cherrill). She needs money to make sure her grandmother isn’t booted out of their home, and the Tramp tries to help through a variety of methods.

It’s his attempts to secure some loot in Depression-era America that garner the film’s main laughs. One recurring theme shows the Tramp and his erratic friendship with “An Eccentric Millionaire” (Harry Myers). Actually, he should have been named “A Drunken, Forgetful Millionaire” because AEM consistently befriends the Tramp while toasted but then forgets - and rebuffs - him while sober.

That side of the story befits the Tramp’s “can’t get a break” life; just when he thinks he can finally make some progress, he falls back to earth. The Tramp also attempts to wrangle some dough through various jobs, most significantly as a fighter; he takes on a boxing match with genuinely hilarious results.

That bout stands as easily the best part of CL. I never much cared for slapstick, but the silliness evident in this scene is sublimely wonderful; even if the remainder of the film stunk, that one segment alone would redeem it.

Happily, the rest of CL actually is pretty good, though I still think TGR was funnier. A restaurant meal of spaghetti and a chair contribute to a couple of other successful gags as CL provides a consistently amusing experience.

If I had to pick a flaw in the movie - and other Chaplin efforts - it would come from their vague lack of coherence. Much of CL felt like a variety of skits that had been cobbled together to serve a generic plot. Actually, that same criticism can apply to a number of other comedies of the era. I don’t have a lot of experience with the movies of this period, but I saw similar construction in W.C. Fields’ The Bank Dick and the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup; both movies felt like gags with a storyline superimposed upon them.

City Lights probably holds together better than either of those, largely because of the touching relationship between the Tramp and the Blind Girl. Actually, one of the reasons the movie seems so memorable results from its very bittersweet ending; I don’t want to spoil it, but the conclusion is surprisingly ambivalent, which helps make the film all the more charming.

I don’t think that City Lights was the best film made by Charlie Chaplin, but it provided a surprisingly witty and moving experience. A variety of slapstick gags offered the requisite laughs, while a tender and heartfelt performance by Chaplin allowed the film to become more emotional and winning. Even for someone who never much cared for silent comedies, City Lights stands as a compelling experience.

The DVD:

City Lights appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.37:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While the film clearly shows its age, it had enough going for it to make the presentation largely watchable.

Sharpness was one of the movie’s strongest points. Some wider shots looked somewhat soft and fuzzy, but most of CL appeared fairly crisp and well-defined. Moiré effects and jagged edges presented no concerns.

Print flaws seemed fairly typical for a movie of this vintage; a certain level of defects are expected from a nearly 70-year-old film, and CL matches but doesn’t exceed that threshold. Throughout the picture I discerned grit, grain, speckles, nicks and blotches. A few vertical lines appeared as well, and at times the picture seemed a bit jittery and flickery.

Black levels were fairly weak, as the movie often looked too bright. A lot of the film seemed excessively pale and the dark tones lacked depth. The image betrayed a somewhat washed-out appearance at times that made contrast levels relatively poor. For a movie this old, the picture was relatively satisfactory, but make no mistake: it contained quite a few flaws.

City Lights offered two similar but separate soundtracks. We get the original monaural recording presented in a one-channel Dolby Digital mix as well as a re-recorded PCM stereo mix that was completed in the early 1990s. In regard to the movie’s original track, it seemed fairly typical of the era. Since this is a silent film, essentially all we hear is music; the movie contains a few minor sound effects as well, but the score was the star of the show. The track sounded fairly clean and crisp though it appeared thin and without dynamic range, as one expects from movies of the period. Some background noise occurred throughout the film, most of which came about in the form of popping; this loud distraction was the main reason this otherwise relatively-strong soundtrack fell to a “C-“.

The relatively new PCM stereo re-recorded score sounded quite good. It appeared that the most of the original effects stems were integrated with this mix, and they fit in fairly well. The music seemed nicely clear, rich and lush, and it was very well-defined and dynamic. Sonically, this track easily outdoes the original, but both have their merits. Some may prefer the original mix just because the flawed audio matches the picture more closely; it can feel somewhat odd to watch a messy picture along with gorgeous sound. In any case, I appreciated the choice of soundtracks; the option should please both those who want the original audio and those who prefer updates.

City Lights includes a few solid supplements. We find an interview with Carl Davis, the musician who orchestrated the re-recording of the music. In this 14-minute and 50-second program, we learn some general information about what he did to recreate the audio and also hear a few details about Chaplin, City Lights and the era in which the movie appeared. This interview isn’t nearly as compelling as those on Modern Times and The Gold Rush, both of which featured folks who worked with Chaplin, but Davis’s comments are generally entertaining and they merit a look.

A few other sections provide some text materials. As was the case with the other two Chaplin DVDs, this information appears through running video segments. “Original Story Notes” includes five minutes of Chaplin’s jottings about the project, while “Advertising, Promotion and Publicity” adds three minutes and 15 seconds of shots a wealth of these materials. Lastly, “The Business of City Lights” presents one minute and 45 seconds worth of financial details about the movie. All these areas present some compelling and valuable details that relate to CL.

In City Lights we find the second of Charlie Chaplin’s three most acclaimed comedies. It lacks the consistent laughs of The Gold Rush and the social commentary of Modern Times but it still works nicely as a bittersweet love story. The DVD offers pretty good picture and sound for a film of this vintage; both show a myriad of concerns but they’ve held up relatively well nonetheless. A few good supplements round out the package and make this DVD of City Lights a solid purchase for Chaplin fans or those just curious to experience the man’s work.

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