City Lights boasts a deceptively simple story centering on Chaplin’s iconic Tramp character and two friendships he develops (there are no character names here). The Tramp is a virtuous man who endures constant ridicule by those around him, both children and adults, for his shabby appearance and low social standing. The most important relationship is between the Tramp and a Blind Girl (Virginia Cherrill). The sole purpose driving this middle-aged sad sack is to raise money in order to help the Girl restore her eyesight. Through a series of simple yet utterly believable complications, the Girl falls under the impression that the Tramp is actually a wealthy man. In order to remain in her company, he does what he can to maintain the illusion.
The other friendship is between the Tramp and an Eccentric Millionaire (Harry Myers). One night, the Tramp happens to witness the Millionaire attempting suicide by tying a rope around his neck (the other end is attached to a large rock) with the intent of jumping off a dock. The distraught Millionaire’s wife is planning to leave him and he can’t handle it. Responding positively to the Tramp’s intervention, the Millionaire bestows great generosity upon the Tramp in return. There’s one catch though. The Millionaire was drunk during the suicide attempt. When sober, the rich man doesn’t recognize or acknowledge the Tramp. So begins a pattern in which the Millionaire is only the Tramp’s friend while intoxicated.
As the Tramp tirelessly pursues his goal of helping the Blind Girl, the plot becomes a clothesline upon which a series of comic set pieces are hung. The climax is a justly celebrated boxing sequence that finds the Tramp taking on a Prizefighter (Hank Mann) in order to hopefully secure cash winnings. Though in his early 40s when filming City Lights, Chaplin remained an agile physical comedian. Perhaps the passage of time has dulled some of the laugh-out-loud qualities of his routines. But they’re still clever, expertly choreographed, and always manage to sidestep simple slapstick. Depending on the particular sensitivities of your funny bone, Chaplin’s antics might not result in outright guffaws. But even so, nothing in City Lights is ever boring.
At 82 years old, City Lights looks very good on Criterion’s Blu-ray. The black-and-white image is framed in its original aspect ratio of 1.19:1. The transfer was created using two different duplicate negatives (all but the final reel came from one source). Scratches and blemishes have, for the most part, been removed. Sharpness varies a bit as the film does show its age, but overall this is a remarkable presentation. The uncompressed mono soundtrack consists of music and sound effects and it sounds excellent, especially considering the film’s age.
Easily the most useful supplement here is Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance’s audio commentary, newly recorded for this Blu-ray edition. Vance makes an excellent guide as he’s clearly very passionate and knowledgeable about his subject. His discussion offers an engaging mix of factual production information and analysis. “Chaplin Today: City Lights” is a 27-minute featurette from 2003. It would’ve been better if not for all the lengthy clips straight out of the movie. “From the Set of City Lights” presents a selection of vintage behind-the-scenes segments, including a deleted scene, rehearsal footage, and a costume test.
“Chaplin Studios: Creative Freedom by Design” is a 17-minute featurette focusing on the technical effects seen in Chaplin’s work. Because of the prominent boxing sequence in City Lights, we get a couple short pieces under the banner “Chaplin the Boxer.” First is a ten-minute excerpt from Chaplin’s 1915 short, The Champion. The other, “Boxing Stars Visit the Studio,” is a few minutes of footage from 1918 capturing just what the title suggests. As usual, Criterion’s booklet is a useful supplement in and of itself. This one is 39 pages and contains an interview with Chaplin from 1966 and a terrific essay by critic Gary Giddins.
The emotional payoff in City Lights arrives during the brief, exquisitely staged final scene that resolves the complex relationship between the Tramp and the Blind Girl. After running the gamut from silly to thought-provoking, the film’s conclusion is an achingly beautiful moment of basic human kindness that just might sneak up on you. By not doing anything to deliberately jerk tears from his audience, Chaplin provokes the waterworks naturally, with the utmost subtlety.