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Warner Home Video presents
City Lights (1931)

"This is for the rent. And this is for your eyes."
- A Tramp (Charlie Chaplin)

Review By: David Krauss  
Published: June 03, 2004

Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Harry Myers
Director: Charles Chaplin

MPAA Rating: G for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 01h:22m:36s
Release Date: March 02, 2004
UPC: 085393764821
Genre: comedy

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A B+AB+ B+

DVD Review

When City Lights premiered in 1931 to overwhelming critical and popular acclaim, its accolades must have especially gratified the film's director and star, Charlie Chaplin. After all, it took guts (and more than a little conceit) to produce a silent movie in an era defined by the catchphrase "All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing!" But Chaplin adamantly believed his beloved Tramp character, an iconic figure in almost every corner of the world, would lose his universal appeal by speaking a language—any language. So, as modern times (and technology) moved ahead, Chaplin remained anchored in the silent (and archaic) past.

Yet Chaplin knew what he was doing, and should be admired for stubbornly withstanding public and industry pressure to embrace sound. He smartly marketed City Lights as high art, billing it as "a comedy-romance in pantomime," then let the film "speak" for itself. Audiences instantly responded, for rarely has a movie, silent or otherwise, telegraphed its emotions with such precision and eloquence. As finely choreographed as a Russian ballet, City Lights tells a simple story in a simple fashion, yet inspires a complex array of feelings. Once again, Chaplin brilliantly merges comedy with pathos, and laces his slapstick humor with a fragility and sensitivity that make his routines at once hilarious and poignant.

The movie follows the misadventures of a lovable but bumbling Tramp (Chaplin), who finds himself hopelessly smitten by a Blind Girl (Virginia Cherrill), who he encounters by chance on a New York City street corner. An unfortunate coincidence (the first of many) leads the girl to believe the Tramp is a wealthy gentleman of the highest order, and, unwilling to dash her hopes, he allows the fantasy to continue. As luck would have it, the Tramp saves An Eccentric (and terribly drunken) Millionaire (Harry Myers) from suicide, and the grateful man takes the Tramp under his wing. Their relationship, however, ebbs and flows depending on the Millionaire's level of inebriation, which provokes several comedic situations.

When the Tramp reads in the newspaper that a Vienna doctor has developed a method to restore sight, he excitedly shares the news with the Blind Girl, then tirelessly tries to raise enough money to finance the treatment—knowing all the while that if the girl regains her sight, she will discover his true identity, and he will lose her.

After viewing City Lights, it's impossible to imagine it as a talkie; dialogue would have severely disrupted the film's poetic flow and tender mood, trivializing its sentiment and adding too much sugar to its innocent sweetness. Some of the comedy sequences might have withstood the addition of sound, but seem to work better with only Chaplin's melodic score as an accompaniment. Although Chaplin firmly resisted dialogue, he sprinkles clever audio effects throughout the film, enhancing the humor and lending City Lights just enough of a contemporary flavor to satisfy sound-hungry audiences.

Some of his routines are a tad lengthy and self-indulgent, but Chaplin contributes an almost continuous series of memorable and inventive comic bits. Watching Chaplin struggle to free himself after the sword of a statue impales him through the seat of his pants, or try to speak after swallowing a whistle, or dance behind a boxing referee to avoid being socked by his hulking opponent are masterfully presented and executed. But just as easily as Chaplin provokes laughs, he also wrings tears, and the film's final few minutes inspires a torrent of them. Chaplin and Cherrill (who would later become Cary Grant's first wife) play the scene with such understated care and depth of feeling, no dialogue is necessary to transmit the powerful emotions. The close-ups say it all.

Silent film acting is truly an art, and only a few of Hollywood's elite mastered it. Chaplin was one of them, and his work in City Lights ranks among his finest performances. As a director, he equally succeeds, endowing his film with a sophistication and timelessness few comedies of the period possess.

Silence is rarely so golden.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Once again, Warner and mk2 éditions have produced an exceptional transfer of a Chaplin film. The crystal clear image remains almost totally free of age-related imperfections, and possesses marvelous detail, rich black levels, good contrast, and a varied gray scale. Few films from the early 1930s look as pristine as City Lights, and this top-notch effort is nothing less than The Tramp deserves.

Image Transfer Grade: A


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Chaplin composed the lovely score for City Lights, and while the DD 5.1 presentation never envelops as much as one would like, it still offers full, warm sound with plenty of presence and depth. The sporadic audio effects Chaplin employs nicely perk up the track, but never overwhelm it.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Thai, Korean with remote access
3 Original Trailer(s)
1 Deleted Scenes
1 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Cardboard Tri-Fold
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Excerpt from The Champion (1915) with Charlie Chaplin
  2. Rare rehearsal and behind-the-scenes footage
  3. Photo and film poster galleries
  4. Home movies
Extras Review: A comprehensive set of extras comprises the offerings on Disc 2, and begins with a five-minute introduction to the film by Chaplin biographer David Robinson. Here, we learn City Lights was the actor/director's "hardest and longest undertaking," requiring almost three years of work, and that Virginia Cherrill was the only leading lady with whom Chaplin never enjoyed an affinity. Despite their mutual dislike, Chaplin appreciates his own acting in City Lights (especially in the climactic scene) more than any other film. Robinson concludes his remarks by terming City Lights "the zenith of [Chaplin's] achievement and reputation."

Chaplin Today—City Lights, a rather weak 26-minute documentary, follows, and mostly features British animator and Chaplin fan Peter Lord dissecting many of the film's sequences. His insights are often interesting, but for a movie with such a rich production history, surprisingly little attention is paid to the behind-the-scenes turmoil and numerous creative issues that afflicted City Lights. Director Serge Bromberg does hint at Chaplin's perfectionism, as we learn the first meeting between the Tramp and the Blind Girl required 300 takes to satisfy Chaplin, but film history buffs won't find many more noteworthy nuggets.

A seven-minute deleted scene, showing the Tramp's frustration and fascination with a piece of wood stuck in a subway grating—and his endless attempts to free it—is included without any audio accompaniment, but the comedy of the sequence endures. According to Robinson, Chaplin loved the scene and agonized over cutting it, but finally realized the film flowed better without it.

The Documents section begins with eight minutes of silent footage shot on the film's set. This fascinating glimpse behind the scenes shows Chaplin interacting with the crew and co-star Cherrill, setting up and directing various scenes, mugging for the camera, and performing in real time. Equally intriguing is the seven-minute screen test of actress Georgia Hale. In his introduction, Robinson notes that artistic differences caused Chaplin to briefly consider replacing Cherrill as the Blind Girl with his former Gold Rush co-star. The test, however, makes it immediately apparent that Hale lacks the vulnerability and fragility Cherrill brings to the role, and Chaplin wisely stuck with his original choice. The Dream Prince is an abandoned one-minute segment designed to show how the Blind Girl imagines her benefactor, while in Rehearsal, we see a dapper Chaplin rough out one of his routines in casual dress. Chaplin and Boxing Stars (1918) is an engaging pair of two brief shorts in which the actor playfully spars with a couple of professional boxers visiting his studio. Chaplin looks like he's having a ball—and getting quite a workout, too.

Other novelties in this section include Winston Churchill Visits the Set, which shows the soon-to-be prime minister of Great Britain (with ever-present cigar) chatting with Chaplin, and Chaplin Speaks!, a three-minute sound film chronicling the star's triumphant 1931 arrival in Vienna, where he supposedly uttered his first words into a microphone. Barely audible, the silver-haired Chaplin mutters "Guten tag" before he smiles and retreats from view. Hardly earth-shattering, but amusing for all the hoopla the stunt engendered. The section concludes with Trip to Bali, a 10-minute silent travelogue featuring footage from Chaplin's 1932 trip to the tropical paradise. Unless you're into tribal dances and topless native women, you might want to skip this tiresome short.

In 1915, Chaplin made a boxing comedy called The Champion, and a 10-minute excerpt containing some very funny bits is included here. In addition, eight minutes of trailers for City Lights feature offerings from the U.S., France, and Germany, while the Photo Gallery includes a whopping 140 stills divided into six categories. More interesting is the Film Posters section, which showcases 27 beautiful color posters from such countries as the U.S., Great Britain, France, Belgium, Denmark, Argentina, Italy, even Czechoslovakia. Completing the Disc 2 supplements, a 12-minute extended trailer for The Chaplin Collection provides a peek at the treasure trove of Chaplin films now available on DVD.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

City Lights, more than perhaps any other Chaplin film, showcases the actor/director's supreme artistry. This deluxe special edition DVD, with its pristine transfer, fine audio, and interesting extras ensures that another of The Tramp's masterworks will entertain and enrich viewers for generations to come. Highly recommended.


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