Charlie Chaplin’s work in the late teens and throughout the 1920s punctured visions of Jazz Age excess with an image of poverty, a reminder of a burgeoning wealth gap that had, by the time of “City Lights’” 1931 release, exploded into the Great Depression. Much has been made of the risk Chaplin took in releasing a silent picture in 1931, yet in some respects the director’s adherence to the form that made him a star may have been less Luddism than a desire to tell people, “I told you so” on the same terms with which he’d spent more than a decade trying to educate them.
It is a testament to Chaplin’s prescience that “City Lights,” which began production in 1928, at last debuted more relevant than it would have been if it came in on a reasonable schedule. For though the film stands as perhaps Chaplin’s most good-natured feature, it is also one of his most scathing. Its opening setpiece alone is one of the artist’s most ingenious, multifaceted political statements: a politician (“voiced” by the sound of squawking gibberish in an overt show of disgust with hot-air bloviating in the face of economic ruin) dedicates a statue to “peace and prosperity,” as if in memoriam to both. The politician calls for the statue to be unveiled, at which point the Tramp is revealed asleep in the arms of one of the three stone figures, cinema’s greatest icon of poverty disrupting a hollow celebration of American exceptionalism that, in 1931, still applied only to a select few.
Chaos ensues, naturally, as the crowd of decent folk try and shoo the hobo from their myopic shindig and the Tramp fumbles and dallies in his escape. Sneaking down from the one stone man, he gets speared through the rear of his pants on the sword of another. The image, a paean to deluded economic security that gores out the empty wallet pocket of the poor, is so concisely captured (as is the Tramp’s “revenge” of sitting on the statue’s face) that the rewards of Chaplin’s sketch-like approach to feature-length film writing are made readily apparent. This entire sequence is of no narrative importance, yet it swiftly establishes the film’s social and thematic context, and it reintroduces the Tramp as someone who, though still silent in the talkie age, can still give the underdog a voice. And besides, as Chaplin flails on the sword before snapping to attention at the sound of patriotic music and ignores the crowd to tie his shoe on a statue before ambling off, the scene is just plain funny.
Even by the standards of Chaplin’s socially conscious, enormously popular filmography, “City Lights” represents the fullest development to that point of his ability to fuse commentary with comedy. Even an innocuous scene like the one of the Tramp admiring a nude mannequin in a shop window as an underground lift behind him keeps lowering as he backs near it takes on symbolic properties, a stripped-bare shop enticing a broke peasant whose temptation threatens to send him tumbling into an abyss. (And like most of the film’s portentous imagery, this political vision of the Tramp on the precipice of disappearing could equally apply to Chaplin’s more personal fears of his character’s pending obsolescence at the hands of a commercially minded technological introduction to his dear art form.)
The clearest meeting point between Chaplin’s dual desires of entertainment and editorial, naturally, comes in the form of Harry Myers’ millionaire, a suicidal, drunken fool met on a quay preparing to drown himself. The Tramp happens along this and intervenes, but the millionaire inadvertently ties the rope around Chaplin and throws the connected rock into the river, leading to a scene of both figures falling into the water trying to save each other, scrambling over each other to save themselves, then repeating the process until the Tramp wises up and shifts their position on land to prevent another tumble. Reinvigorated, the millionaire takes the Tramp back to his home and lavishes gifts and invitations upon the poor man, only to sober up the next morning, forget who the Tramp is and become incensed and repulsed by his presence. Isolate these scenes (which repeat in a cycle as the millionaire recognizes Chaplin again whenever drunk) and you’d have one of Chaplin’s strongest and most allegorical shorts, in which a rich man’s solipsistic, unthinking behavior causes harm to a poor man, only for him to find a moral righteousness in “saving” the poor, only to recoil when forced to actually, clear-headedly be in the presence of the have-nots.
Yet if Chaplin does not mask his thematic ambitions, neither are they the true focus of the film, which, is Chaplin’s own words as seen in one of the films precious few title cards, “A Comedy Romance in Pantomime.” And where Myers, like all of Chaplin’s supporting male heavies, is a massive caricature, with gestures so broad as to be visible from lower orbit, it is Virginia Cherrill’s leading lady who reminds the viewer that Chaplin could also be the most naturalistic of silent clowns. The nearsighted Cherrill brings a tactile quality to her flower girl’s blindness, never overplaying the manner in which she feels for a dropped flower or looks off wistfully at the sound of a young neighbor heading off with a beau. As much as her angelic blond hair and upturned face—always smiling, even when sad—paints her as a saint, one senses her very corporeal desires, from being able to pay rent for the hovel in which she and her grandmother stay to finding a man of her own.
“Comedy romance” is a part of any discussion of the film, almost inarguably the greatest rom-com in cinema history, yet fewer touch upon the “pantomime” aspect. Though slapstick may have been a fundamental part of Chaplin’s work, his true genius lie in pantomime, the numerous grace notes of Chaplin’s reactions and that of his supporting crew. The director attempted to fire Cherrill during the film’s long production but could not afford the cost of re-casting so late into the already delayed project. Why only he knows, for Cherrill elicits some of Chaplin’s most textured acting. She does not stand outside her character’s physical misery but imbues it with enough strength to inspire the Tramp, whose pity fast fades into a desire simply to be with her.
Around the blind woman, the Tramp’s usual bashfulness is exacerbated but also catalyzed into his most earnest selflessness. One can read the delight in the Tramp’s face as, mistaken for a millionaire by the woman, has the opportunity to be the gentleman for once, and that overrides even his own instinct for peevish self-preservation. Having received $1000 from the millionaire for an eye-restoring surgery just before the millionaire sobers up and forgets his pledge, the Tramp runs it to her before the cops can get him, slipping a Benjamin for himself as he hands over the cash. Cherrill kisses his hand in gratitude, however, and without missing a beat, the Tramp reaches into his pocket and gives her the purloined bill. And when Chaplin moves to leave and face jail, the look of muted sadness and resignation on his face when he tells her he will be gone “for awhile” hits harder than the most expressive silent melodrama.
The grace of the acting is reflected in Chaplin’s direction. Usually overlooked for its simplicity, Chaplin’s style has always used its set method of mostly static, long shots for greater effect than simply showcasing the star’s physical prowess. “City Lights” is no exception. Long shots help to foreground class differences in the modest hovel of the blind woman and her grandmother and the palatial home of the millionaire and the gigantic speakeasies he frequents. Chaplin once said that tragedy occurs in close-up while comedy is a long shot, but he manages to wring tragedy out of the latter by moving from the expansive, farcical dimensions of the millionaire’s world to the cramped settings of the woman’s flat. Inside the millionaire’s drawing room or in the sweeping ballroom, the frame obviously takes on only a fraction of the room’s true size, despite how big the image feels. In the woman’s home, however, only the back wall against which the camera is pressed is absent; otherwise what the camera records looking forward is the entirety of the place.
And besides, if Chaplin really did favor longer takes from a distance to facilitate his own performance, that only makes each scene a miracle of intricate blocking made to look spontaneous and unexpected. Take that scene of the millionaire attempting to drown himself. Most filmmakers today would turn Chaplin’s accidental fall into the water into a hyper-edited jumble of “visceral” sensation, attempting to capture the feeling of Chaplin drowning rather than the sole cut to the millionaire’s POV that shows the Tramp’s legs kicking feebly out of the water. From there, Chaplin cuts closer only when both men are in the water so as to better see their scramble for the shore. Otherwise, the camera remains in position as they repeat the cycle, allowing one to carefully study how Chaplin both positions himself to be thrown back in and how he finally reconfigures the setup to avoid another spill. And though Chaplin marvelously incorporates sound with the aforementioned squawking politician and a gag involving him swallowing a whistle, his camera can make sound of movement, as when a quick pan to a millionaire getting into a car and slamming the door behind the Tramp when he meets the flower girl makes the door slam heard through the camera’s sudden jostle.
All of this comes together in the finale, justifiably the most well-regarded in cinema and an ending that can bring tears even after numerous re-watches. Having gotten his beloved the money for a sight-restoring surgery and gone to jail for months for it, the Tramp returns to the streets to find the woman now running a shop. As the camera sits out on the street looking at the oblivious Tramp walking by, we can see her in the background laughing at him with an assistant, the camera’s literal street view framing the hobo in realistic fashion. Cut to a shot over her shoulder from inside the shop, and suddenly the Tramp seems larger as seen through the glass, like the screen icon that he is, and when he turns and spots her for the first time and smiles, his pathetic and lovely traits are heightened to extremes.
Then the woman comes out to give this tramp a flower and a coin, and the camera films her grab his hand in a medium shot that allows the viewer to study her face as her fingers find something familiar in his touch. A close-up of her hand on his comes only after the medium shot has been held for agonizing length to study the change in her face, the insert shot thus a means not of informing the audience of what’s happened but to deepen the emotional charge of the revelation. Back to medium shot looking over Chaplin’s shoulder like an intruder as she asks, “You?” The camera then jumps over to view Chaplin in medium close-up, fingernails clenched in his teeth as he nods. The simple cuts back-and-forth create an unbearable tension as the Tramp fears rejection, and neither player goes broad in communicating their conflicted feelings. By the time the woman’s multivalent comment “Yes, I can see now,” prompts an accepting smile on her face, Chaplin has, through rudimentary setups and muted acting, created a more suspenseful moment than Hitchcock ever accomplished, and the joyous smile that erupts from around his gnawed fingernail in the last shot is not merely cinema’s greatest romantic payoff but also its best moment of overwhelming relief, not only for its character but the audience.
THE TRANSFER: "City Lights" has never looked better than it does on Criterion Collection Blu-ray. Despite the film being more than 80 years old, the HD transfer here is immaculately crisp, with remarkable detail and contrast. Grain is natural but hardly ever noticeable (let alone overwhelming), which is sure to satisfy both purists and those who favor digital corrections, alike. It should be noted that this, along with "Frances Ha", is one of Criterion's first dual DVD / Blu-ray releases, with both discs fitting comfortably inside the gloriously convenient package.
THE EXTRAS: The big draw here is the exclusive new commentary track by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance. Informative and enthusiastic, Vance reads from a carefully prepared script, which isn't off-putting thanks to how he packs every moment with vital details. Select footage from Chaplin's short film "The Champion" isn't especially essential given how so much of Chaplin's filmography is readily available on YouTube, but it's a nice treat all the same. More valuable are the 2003 documentary " Chaplin Today: 'City Lights'" and the new featurette "Chaplin Studios: Creative Freedom by Design", in which visual effects guru Craig Barron explores and explains the endlessly dazzling world of visual trickery as it existed in the silent era (fans of a similar doc on Criterion's "Safety Last!" release will not be disappointed). Archival footage from the production is the cherry on top, especially as it includes a complete scene that was cut from the film, a rarity for the notoriously meticulous Chaplin.
THE ARTWORK: As seen above, Seth's original design for the cover is quite fetching, wistfully romantic and at once both contemporary and timeless. It even sparkles.