Blu-Ray Review: City Lights
It's important to occasionally revisit iconic and well-regarded movies to remind us of how good they are. As a critic or cinephile, it's easy to rest on your laurels, idly declaring Citizen Kane to be the best movie of all time (or perhaps I should use Vertigo in that example from now on), while casually losing sight of the dramatic immediacy of the film as it fades into the rear-view mirror of memory. You may be intimately familiar with a classic film, having seen it many times, or perhaps just having spent an intense short period studying it passionately, but the actual forward experience of seeing it and feeling it needs to be re-upped every once in a while.
So it goes with Charles Chaplin's 1931 classic City Lights, now on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection. City Lights is so often held up as Chaplin's greatest film – and indeed it is – that it can fade into pantheon a little too quickly; scholars and film students are so quick to lionize it that we forget how touching and sentimental and poignant the film actually is; we're so busy dusting it off and displaying its greatness that we sometimes forget to cherish it. It's one of those films that bears re-watching not because it doesn't hold up, but because it does.
City Lights, for those who don't know it (and, yes, there are people out there) stands as the magnum opus in Chaplin's Little Tramp canon. It was made after the inception of sound, but is still a silent film, as Chaplin was too fond of the theatrical and pantomime traditions of silent movies to give them up. Chaplin, wearing his iconic mustache, bowler hat, and cane, plays a homeless man in 1931 New York who falls in love with a blind flower merchant (Virginia Cherrill). That same night, he also happens to rescue a wealthy drunk (Harry Myers) from suicide. The drunk offers him gifts and money in return, which Chaplin uses to pose as a rich dandy to impress the blind flower girl. Eventually, the blind girl is saved, while the Tramp is left destitute.
The film is, like many films of the era, unflaggingly weepy and sentimental. It's about a noble poverty-stricken martyr who uses his every opportunity for wealth to help a woman who hasn't ever laid eyes on him – and cannot. Much has been made of the film's very famous final shot wherein the Little Tramp smiles, totally exposed, for his ladylove. Ask any American scholar, and they'll expound at length on the heartbreaking power of this shot. Ask any European scholar, and they'll go on for even longer; City Lights, and indeed all of Chaplin's work, are celebrated even more highly in Europe than they are here.
Film is a medium that is directly reliant on technology, and each time there is a sea change in cinematic widgets, critics come out of the woodwork to pontificate noisily about the positives and negatives of the change, often siding with the traditional. I have done this myself, often extolling the virtues of 35mm film over digital projection. City Lights was made at a time when talkies had already shifted into the public eye, and was, in its very form, openly and forwardly resistant to the new change. Chaplin felt that dialogue would ruin the subtlety and comedy of mime, his specialty. City Lights, then, may stand as The Testament of the Luddite. Here is a film star, openly resistant to change, making a movie in an already-dated format, ultimately creating what is often considered one of the best American movies.
But all of this makes City Lights seem a bit dry and technical. It should also not be ignored that Chaplin is one of film's preeminent comedians, and his sense of comedy situations and physical adeptness are a paragon of slapstick. In terms of actual slapstick perfection, I would have to declare myself a bigger fan of Buster Keaton (yeah, I just reduced it to a Chaplin vs. Keaton argument again), but that doesn't mean Chaplin's brilliantly realized comedy sequences are not hilarious. There is a scene early in the film wherein the Tramp is admiring a nude statue in a shop window. Behind him, a trapdoor opens in the sidewalk. Walking slowly backward the Tramp nudges up to the opening… and then walks forward again. This happens three or four times. The subtle physical perfection of this scene is amazing, and by the third time he almost falls in, you'll be giggling and giggling.
There's only so many times I can use the term “must see” before it begins to lose its meaning, but I'm afraid I have to haul it out once again in front of City Lights. It's a glorious video production of one of the best silent movies ever made. It's still funny and still moving and still sentimental. Nothing feels stodgy or dated. It's lightweight and enjoyable throughout. If you consider great films to be homework, then this is an assignment you can look forward to.
Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly articles Trolling, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.