City Lights Review

Chaplin’s first film of the sound era, on Blu-ray from Artificial Eye.

The Tramp befriends a young blind flower-seller (Virginia Cherrill). She mistakenly thinks he is a rich man, and he tries to raise money to enable her to go abroad for an operation to restore her sight…

Chaplin’s fourth feature, The Circus, premiered in January 1928. Three months earlier, The Jazz Singer had been released and the writing was on the wall for the silent feature film, a medium which in the hands of its greatest exponents had reached a high level of artistry in its two decades-plus of existence. However, Chaplin had mixed feelings about the coming of sound. His art was based on mime, and his films could be understood worldwide – all you would need to do would be to translate the intertitles. But if the Little Tramp begun to speak – specifically, speak in English – that would immediately limit his audience. He was determined to continue to make silent films, and City Lights was the result, “a comedy romance in pantomime” as the opening credits put it. It was a huge gamble that the audience would accept a silent film at a time when almost every other picture was a talkie. Chaplin was not alone in this. F.W. Murnau felt the same and made Tabu as a silent with no dialogue and apart from some onscreen text no intertitles, something Chaplin did not himself dispense with.

Chaplin’s concession to the new technology was to give City Lights a synchronised soundtrack with a music score composed by himself, and with some sound effects, notably the kazoo-like sounds coming out of the mouths of the public speakers in the opening scene and the appropriate noises in a sequence where the Tramp accidentally swallows a whistle. In fact the entire plot hinges on a sound effect, though it’s one we in the audience do not hear: the slamming of a car door, which leads the blind girl to believe that the Tramp is a millionaire just leaving in his limousine.

As the opening credits state, City Lights is a comedy but it is also a romance. For his female lead, Chaplin cast a twenty-year-old socialite who was new to acting, other than appearing as an extra in the 1928 part-talkie The Air Circus, Virginia Cherrill. She and her director did not get on, and Chaplin at one point considered replacing her with his leading lady from The Gold Rush, Georgia Hale: Hale’s screen test still survives. Cherrill and Chaplin never worked together again. She acted for five more years – and Cary Grant became the third of her four husbands – but this is by far the best-known role of her career. (She died in 1996 at the age of eighty-eight.) Unusually, she’s a leading lady taller (at 5’6″, by one inch) than her leading man. By her own admission, she was by no means a great actress but – however much it was under his direction – manges genuine sweetness without becoming too cloying. Chaplin always had a Victorian-bred tendency towards sentimentality, but it’s kept in check here. This is perhaps in part because she’s offscreen for about a third of the running time, with Chaplin concentrating on the Tramp’s mishaps in trying to raise money for her, including going in the ring as a boxer, and associating with an eccentric millionaire whom the Tramp has saved from drowning. And at the end, when they meet, and she sees who her benefactor really was, Chaplin leaves us with a achingly sad final close up, some of the best acting he ever did.

Chaplin’s increasingly perfectionist tendencies – not to mention his multiple roles in producing, writing, directing, acting and now writing the score as well – made for a protracted production, lasting 683 days, 179 of those being actual shooting days. Considerable effort for a film which seems all but effortless. The film finally premiered in January 1931, a year after Hollywood’s last non-soundtrack silent had been released. However, the gamble paid off, and the film was a considerable success. Chaplin continued in silent mode for his next feature, Modern Times.

The Disc

City Lights is another of Artificial Eye’s series of Chaplin reissues on Blu-ray and DVD, and it was the former which was supplied for review. Affiliate links for the DVD can be found here.

As with Chaplin’s other features, the first UK DVD release was from Warner Home Video in 2003, then as now licensed from MK2. Some of the extras from that edition have been carried forward to this new Blu-ray but not all. In this case we are missing an excerpt from Chaplin’s 1915 short The Champion (an earlier film featuring a balletic boxing match), Georgia Hale’s screen test, rehearsal footage, Chaplin sparring with professional boxers visiting the set, footage of Chaplin speaking on camera in Vienna in 1931 and a stills and poster gallery. Once again, completists may wish to hang on to their earlier DVDs.

The Blu-ray transfer is in the ratio of 1.33:1, which was the standard aspect ratio in the silent era. However, with the coming of sound, and an optical track printed on the film, the ratio narrowed to 1.19:1, which many found too close to a square to be aesthetically pleasing. So, in 1932, what was to be called Academy Ratio became the standard, by reducing the height to widen the image to 1.37:1 (no one seems to know the reason for the difference of 0.04:1 from the old silent ratio), and this remained standard until of the widescreen era in 1953. However, City Lights, released in 1931, was made in the narrower early-talkie-era ratio, and that the top and bottom of this Blu-ray transfer are noticeably cropped (though not so noticeably as other films from this era). The earlier DVD transfer is closer to the correct ratio – I measured it at 1.22:1 – and you will notice the difference in image height in the following screengrabs, DVD first. As for the picture otherwise, while the difference in resolution between DVD and Blu-ray is clear (as it obviously should be), the picture still looks soft and some of the exteriors – such as the opening scenes – do look washed out. I haven’t seen this film in many years – and previously only on television – so can’t comment if it has always looked that way, but this certainly isn’t the best-looking Blu-ray I’ve seen of a film of this vintage.

Released in mono in cinemas, City Lights has a LPCM 2.0 soundtrack, which plays in mono via your centre speaker. 1931 soundtracks had a distinctly limited dynamic range, as anyone who has seen other films from that era will know. But this is not the original 1931 soundtrack, but an orchestral re-recording of Chaplin’s score, conducted by Carl Davis, dating from 1988. There are credits for this at the end of the film, and a Dolby Stereo logo, though as said above it’s mono with Dolby noise reduction. The results certainly sound a lot fuller than the original would do.

The extras begin once again with an interview by film critic and Chaplin biographer David Robinson (5:24) and the next in the series of Chaplin Today featurettes (26:46). As before, the two do overlap, with Robinson giving a clear runthrough of the film’s production and the featurette doing the same with the additional input of a guest filmmaker. In this case it’s Peter Lord from Aardman Films, who talks about how Chaplin has influenced his work from the outset. He particularly drew on silent comedy like Chaplin’s when he made his first claymation films, for the BBC’s series Vision On, a programme intended for deaf and hard-of-hearing children.

Next up are four short pieces of film from the time. “The Shoot” (2:40) shows Chaplin and his crew at work on the filming of the scene where the Tramp and the Flower Girl meet. This was shot by Chaplin’s friend Ralph Barton. There follows a deleted scene (7:06) which would grace the work of other silent comedians but was removed in the edit. It begins with the Tramp trying to free a piece of wood from a grating and proceeds from there. A short unedited scene (1:09) shows Chaplin as the Dream Prince of the blind girl’s imagination, or maybe the Tramp imagining himself in the role – which of this is the case is uncertain as this character does not appear in the final edit. Also included is a short piece of film (1:59) where future UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill, just stood down as Chancellor of the Exchequer and on a lecture tour of the US, visited the film set. Rather longer is some footage (9:57) shot during Charles and Sydney Chaplin’s visit to Bali, with much emphasis on the indigenous people and their dances (often topless). “The Shoot” is presented with a music score, the other items mute.

Finally, there are three trailers for City Lights (8:44), one English-language, one French (Les lumières de la ville) and one German (Lichter der Grosstadt). In the latter two, the voiceovers are subtitled into English. The extras end with the same 10:44 of extracts from the films in the Chaplin Collection which is on all of Artificial Eye’s Chaplin discs.


Updated: Sep 01, 2015

Get involved
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum
City Lights Review | The Digital Fix