Charlie Chaplin‘s films have stood the test of time not necessarily because they are funny, at least not in today’s terms of what classifies a film as a “comedy”, but because the best of them are amusing, clever, witty, smart, emotional and, most of all, simple. But don’t let their simplicity deceive you. The level of simplicity a film such as Chaplin’s 1931 feature City Lights is not easily achieved. In fact, making something look simple may in fact be the hardest thing to accomplish in cinema.
Without sci-fi plotlines, outside forces or even additional characters having an effect on the plot, City Lights is the story of Chaplin’s iconic Tramp and the love he finds for a blind woman selling flowers on a street corner. As much as comedy has changed in 80+ years, a story such as this could hardly be told in today’s cinemas and garner any kind of attention. Not even Michel Hazanavicius‘s Best Picture-winning The Artist could be as dedicated to character and moments as what was Chaplin’s final all-silent feature film.
Released four years after The Jazz Singer marked the introduction of the “talkie”, Chaplin still believed in the power of silent storytelling and even mocked the rise of talkies in the film’s opening sequence, a sequence that certainly shows City Lights isn’t your standard silent feature as the film does feature a synchronized soundtrack and effects, but intertitles are used sparingly, and yet after 85 minutes we’re still wowed by the emotional impact of the final scene.
So how does Chaplin manage to not only amuse, but move us with pantomime alone? How can it be achieved if the characters aren’t telling us how or what they feel? Chaplin clearly struggled with this as well as anyone today would. The following excerpt from Criterion’s new Blu-ray release tells us it took Chaplin 342 takes to get the scene in which he meets Virginia Cherrill‘s character for the first time just right, attempting to figure out how could the little Tramp possibly be mistaken for a millionaire? Watching it now it seems almost obvious. In fact, it’s so simple you might not even notice how clever it actually is, but what we don’t realize is that without the accomplished nature of this single scene the entire film would probably have been completely unbelievable.
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However, and this is pointed out in a supplemental feature on this new release featuring Aardman Animations co-founder Peter Lord, Chaplin’s films aren’t exactly about being “believable” or even logical, but they are logical in their absurdity. You believe what is happening is happening and don’t question it even if the likelihood of any of it taking place in real life is limited. Only the best filmmakers are able to achieve such a thing and I firmly believe it’s the major problem with today’s blockbuster cinema.
You can note examples such as Christopher Nolan‘s Inception or The Dark Knight and recognize how he’s managed to create a world you believe in and don’t question the absurdity even though you could very easily pause any moment and question the logic of every scene. Compare that to something like a Transformers film or any other “loud noises” opera of digital destruction, the concern of the filmmaker isn’t the world the characters exist in, but the visual effects used to destroy it. The intimacy is lost because none of us have ever had a relationship with a pixel, or, at least I haven’t.
[amz asin=”B004OOL73W” size=”small”]City Lights‘s silence offers a challenge that ultimately pays off with a scene that should be looked at and studied by anyone that wants to be a filmmaker. Over the course of 85 minutes Chaplin amuses us with the follies of the Tramp as he befriends a drunken millionaire hellbent on suicide, becomes a street sweeper, enters the boxing ring and ultimately finds himself in jail, all in an effort to not necessarily win the blind woman’s heart, but to help her with rent and raise enough money so she could have surgery that would repair her eye sight.
If you haven’t seen the film, maybe you don’t want to read this paragraph or watch the clip below, but it’s easily one of the greatest moments of storytelling you’ll see in cinema. It’s great because not only is it effective, but it serves as evidence of a true master at work. It’s a commentary on cinema as much as it is an emotional coming together of two characters fate would seem determined to keep apart. Without a single word spoken on the part of Chaplin’s Tramp, the once-blind woman who can now see, recognizes the man responsible for everything she now has. If the question were to ever arrive, wondering if movies had the ability to be “felt”, this is the scene that would be offered as evidence.
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Criterion’s presentation of this classic is fantastic as they continue to deliver with each Chaplin release they issue. If the screen captures at DVD Beaver are any indication, this is the absolute best the film has ever looked on home video, far more crisp and detailed than any of the shots DVD Beaver offers for comparison.
The features are extensive with some overlap in details, largely in Charlie Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance‘s audio commentary, which is incredibly comprehensive, loaded with as much information as you’ll find on the rest of the including features. In addition to the features I’ve already mentioned above, a 2003 documentary called Chaplin Today: “City Lights”, which was previously released on Warner Bros.’ 2004 DVD releases of Chaplin’s features, an excerpt of Chaplin’s 1915 short film The Champion (watch the full thing to the right) and a deleted scene from the film that was rightly excised if you ask me.
Like Criterion’s previous releases of Chaplin’s The Gold Rush and Modern Times (read my review here), this disc includes a look at the film’s effects, although only as a piece of a larger feature detailing Chaplin Studios. It’s a wonderful look where the magic happened as well as a look at how the magic was performed.
Finally, a 41-page booklet featuring an essay by critic Gary Giddins (read it here) and a 1966 interview with Chaplin is also included.
I’d only seen City Lights once before revisiting it twice on this new Criterion Blu-ray and I didn’t remember enjoying it as much as I ended up enjoying it this time around. I’m not sure I can say why, but I’m pretty sure it’s how that final scene sneaks up on you and does so almost effortlessly, but as this release most certainly expresses, it was anything but easy. While The Gold Rush remains my personal favorite Chaplin, and while several of his films I have yet to see (i.e. Limelight, The Circus, and more), there’s good reason this is considered by many to be Chaplin’s masterpiece.