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Release Date(s)1931 (November 12, 2013)
Studio(s)United Artists/MK2 (Criterion - Spine #680)
City Lights is the fourth Charlie Chaplin film under the United Artists banner, was released in 1931, and grossed nearly three times its original budget. It was a big commercial success, much to everyone’s surprise. Films at that time had just begin to use sync sound and silent films were already beginning to seem ancient by comparison, but because of the Little Tramp’s popularity with filmgoers, the film was a major success.
City Lights is also one of the last silent films produced that many consider to be the best of the art form. Chaplin was always interested in pushing the limits of what normal films could be. He was obsessed with finding simplicity in his storytelling, but also spent a large amount of time and resources to achieve it. Few, if no other, filmmakers were ever given this privilege. Chaplin, being independently wealthy and one of the heads of his own movie studio, could afford to do this. He produced, directed, starred in, wrote and composed the music for most of his films during this time period when such classics as The Gold Rush, Modern Times and The Great Dictator came to be known as film classics. And such is the case with City Lights.
As for the film itself, it’s a marvelously simple story of a poor man (the Little Tramp) falling in love with a blind woman who sells flowers on the street corner. Along his way he meets a wealthy but inebriated man who both befriends him and helps him, only to reject him when he sobers up the next day. The story builds to one of the finest endings to a movie ever put to film. It’s sweet, appropriate and tugs at your heart strings. The film also features Chaplin’s trademark slapstick comedy bits, many of which are just as rich with humor today as they were almost 100 years ago. Purportedly an all-time favorite film of the likes of Orson Welles, Andrei Tarkovsky, Frederico Fellini, Stanley Kubrick and George Bernard Shaw, City Lights is also considered both one of the best silent films ever made and one of the best films ever made in general. It was also Charles Chaplin’s personal favorite of the films that he made, and it’s not hard to understand why.
For Criterion’s Blu-ray debut of City Lights (and other Chaplin titles in their library), a new digital restoration was done in 4K resolution from two separate 35mm duplicate negatives of the film, with fantastic results. The film has also been restored to its proper aspect ratio, which is 1.19:1. Some previous releases of the film on home video had pillarboxed the presentation and revealed more information from the negative, but it was against the filmmakers’ wishes. The frame has now been properly aligned for the correct presentation of the film. With a healthy grain structure on display, image information is incredibly abundant, despite the quality being a bit subpar. The image has some fluctuations still left in it, but you tend to forget about it after a while. You also forget the imperfections in the film that have been left behind, which include minor scratches and weaker areas of the frame that couldn’t be repaired. The image is still quite sharp with perfect brightness and contrast. The scene in which the Little Tramp and the blind woman first meet is a prime example of this transfer’s quality. For instance, her coat has a fine amount of detail to it, as do the Little Tramp’s clothes and face. Overall, it’s technically imperfect, but given the material at hand, it’s still quite superb. The audio is the original uncompressed mono soundtrack. It’s a bit flat and doesn’t have much punch to it, but all of the music and intentionally-synced sound effects and music cues still work and sound great. It shows its age, of course, but it’s never a major problem. There are no subtitles, of course, but the intertitles used in the film are in English.
The extras offer quite a bit of added value. There’s a brand-new audio commentary by Charlie Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance; the Chaplin Today: “City Lights” documentary; the Chaplin Studios: Creative Freedom by Design featurette with visual effects expert Craig Barron; archival footage from the set of the film with audio commentary by Chaplin historian Hooman Mehran, as well as a costume test, a rehearsal, and a complete scene not used in the final film; an excerpt from Chaplin’s short film The Champion, along with footage of Chaplin with real-life boxing stars at the Chaplin Studios in 1918; three separate theatrical trailers from the U.S., France, and Germany; a 40-page booklet with an essay by critic Gary Giddins and an interview with Chaplin from 1966; and finally, a DVD with all of the same content. This is also one of Criterion’s first Dual Format releases, so both formats are a great option for those who want the DVD and may possibly upgrade to Blu-ray later, as well as for those already on board.
City Lights is undoubtedly one of my favorite Charlie Chaplin films. It’s the perfect mixture of a silly character dropped into a simple story with a dramatic and touching payoff that sends you out with a smile on your face. A favorite of film fans the world over, this new Blu-ray/DVD Dual Format release of the film will not disappoint. And as I say with all of Charlie Chaplin’s films that I review here at The Digital Bits, highly recommended!!
- Tim Salmons