Editor’s Notes: City Lights is now on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection.
Chaplin’s 1931 masterwork City Lights opens, appropriately enough, with a title card labeling it a “Comedy Romance in Pantomime,” a distinction that extols its status as a silent picture in an era fastly falling smitten with diegetic sound. But the word “pantomime,” naturally, carries with it other implications aside from a cinematic form of expressive gesticulation. Chaplin’s signature character, The Tramp, is also but a creature of imitation and role-playing, his mannerisms, however polite and well meaning, clearly parroted from more high society citizens. From the opening scene – a delightfully prickly scenario set at a statue’s unveiling – the friction inherent to such a bipolar class system is present, with The Tramp acting as a surrogate for, if not the desolately impoverished, those socially marginalized by economic difference; the character’s mere presence is a reminder to the glitterati that poverty persists despite their gentrifying efforts. Throughout City Lights, Chaplin amusingly illuminates how elitism permeates societal custom, as there’s little mistaking Chaplin’s tatter-clothed protagonist as anything beyond a kindly guttersnipe, no matter how courteously he might tip his bowler or how playfully he might twirl his cane.
Part of what makes City Lights such a timelessly affecting work this portrayal of romance as genuine and reciprocal, the characters completely desexualized entities who merely enjoy their other’s company.
That is, of course, unless you’re blind. Virginia Cherrill plays a flower saleswoman with such an ocular insufficiency, and she mistakes The Tramp, due mostly to his generous airs and some opportune timing, for a wealthy young benefactor. Giving what little he has, the lowly lead character charms The Blind Girl through his efforts of innocent deceit, his guise more indicative of poor self-appraisal than ulteriorly motivated trickery. Moreover, he looks upon his love interest not with lust or objectivity but awe and curiosity, his disposition one of delight whenever he’s in her presence – even after she douses him with a pale of water whilst admiring her silently. Part of what makes City Lights such a timelessly affecting work is its portrayal of romance as genuine and reciprocal, the characters completely desexualized entities who merely enjoy their other’s company.
But as I’ve stated earlier, this relationship is only made initially possible due to her issues with vision, as she’s unable to grasp the social discrepancy that’s supposed to exist between The Tramp’s wardrobe and the weight of his words. Unlike the general population, The Blind Girl is incapable of assuming behavior based on appearance; others, conversely, hesitate not in mocking the principal due to his disheveled appearance. It’s through such interactions that Chaplin posits the meaningless of gesture and individuality in the face of social context, evincing how interpretations of our actions are dependent on the fiscal tiers in which we fit. If this theory is to be believed – and I submit it is – the gravity behind one’s conduct, or even feelings, is something we generally tether to fiscal status. Hell, even after The Tramp is revealed as homeless and asleep atop a statue at the film’s opening, there’s less concern for his wellbeing than for that of dignity and the art; wealth seems to not only afford luxury, but apathy as well.
Apart from communicating his perspectives of class and humanity, Chaplin also imbues City Lights with wonderful buoyancy and musicality, one that celebrates the rather balletic quality of everyday kinesis.
Apart from communicating his perspectives of class and humanity, Chaplin also imbues City Lights with wonderful buoyancy and musicality, one that celebrates the rather balletic quality of everyday kinesis. In truth, the film isn’t a pure silent work, operating instead as something of a hybrid between Chaplin’s pre-sound beginnings and emerging technological pressures. The resulting picture is one of silent spirit despite its measured, accentuated sound design. Effects such as gunshots, bells, and garbled, kazoo-like dialogue espouse the imagery with a feeling of increased sensorial awareness, and at times furthers the director’s more lucidly realized themes. (The aforementioned indecipherable interlocution, for example, doubly critiques both the arrival of talking pictures and the elitism of wellborn talking heads.) And through it all, Chaplin’s physical dexterity, the grace of his movements and singularity of his timing, reads as wondrously effortless, the cogency of his gags made all the more powerful by how naturally they evoke social folly.
It should be said that I don’t feel Chaplin believes there to be an ipso facto relationship between wealth and indifference, but that there exists an inherent, nearly preternatural disconnect between those of divergent financial stratospheres. After The Tramp befriends a dipsomaniacal millionaire (Harry Meyers) and subsequently gets to hobnob with those of the upper crust, he comes to see the otherworldliness of class advantage and privilege. Fleeting, however, is this feeling of acceptance and access, as the rich man’s amiability only extends as far as a bottle’s effect; that is, upon sobering up, he denies knowing The Tramp, condemning him again to an existence of socioeconomic exile. (That the character is eventually punished – by way of jail sentence – for his kindness and desire is but one last jab at not only the systematic security money affords but also the shadow of vulnerability it blankets over others.) City Lights will ultimately endure more as a poignant pictorial of courtship than a treatise on economic difference, but I find that the two not only imbricate but also intimately couple. Rather than be a work solely concerned with the barriers built between us, it opens our eyes – quite literally – to that which brings us together: Love, money, and indubitably, alcohol.
The contrast and congruency of this Criterion Blu-ray transfer aptly conveys Chaplin’s vision some eighty years after its release, and does well in persevering its timelessness for future generations. Detail within the compositions is adequate, and only occasionally exposes the flatness of some studio sets. Most impressive is the representative naturalness of the film’s lighting, as it upholds the efforts of the actors and actresses within a silent, expression-centric context. The uncompressed monaural soundtrack is far from lavish or dynamic, but it is crisp and stable. Overall, this is a very suitable release of what I find to be Chaplin’s best work. Though hardly immersive, it allows the film to endure as a work of its era should: without plasticity or augmentation.
As the subject of academic fascination for many years, much of Chaplin’s work has the advantage of being studied, discussed, and contextualized, the fruits of which are available, with abridgement, here. Chaplin biographer Jeffery Vance offers insight to the film’s production as well as the director’s proclivities in a new audio commentary, and there’s also erudite narration from scholar Hooman Mehran over some priceless archival set footage. Also included are other scenes from production, a number of trailers, and a 26-minute documentary on the film, during which Peter Lord discusses the artisan proficiency and felt impact of certain scenes. On the whole, Criterion does a nice job assembling this patch quilt of supplemental material, offering elementally integral looks inside one of cinema’s finest achievements.
[notification type=”star”]96/100 ~ MASTERFUL. City Lights will ultimately endure more as a poignant pictorial of courtship than a treatise on economic difference, but I find that the two not only imbricate but also intimately couple. Rather than be a work solely concerned with the barriers built between us, it opens our eyes – quite literally – to that which brings us together: Love, money, and indubitably, alcohol.[/notification]