Cast & Crew
At an outdoor dedication ceremony, a tramp is discovered sleeping in the arms of a statue as it is being unveiled before a crowd. He is chased into the city, where he meets a beautiful, blind flower girl, and buys a flower with his last coin. That night, he stops a drunken man from drowning himself. Gratefully, the man invites him to his mansion, which is presided over by a snobby butler named James and they begin to drink. The millionaire and the tramp continue their revels at a nightclub. Early the next morning, when they return home, the millionaire drunkenly offers the tramp money and the use of his Rolls Royce. The tramp uses his windfalls to help the flower girl. Because she cannot see his shabby clothes, the girl thinks her benefactor is a wealthy young man. Determined to help her, the tramp returns to the mansion, but the millionaire has sobered up and does not recognize him, so the tramp takes a job cleaning streets and gives the girl and her grandmother what money he can. By accident the tramp finds out they are behind in their rent and that there is a doctor in Vienna who can cure blindness by an expensive operation. Needing money in a hurry to help his friends, the tramp agrees to participate in a crooked boxing match for a cut of the winning purse, but his crooked partner is replaced by a legitmate fighter, who knocks him cold. Out on the streets, the tramp runs into the millionaire, who is back from Europe. Drunk again, he gladly gives the tramp $1,000 for the operation, but two crooks see the transaction and rob them. The tramp calls the police, but by the time they arrive, the crooks have vanished and the police arrest the tramp. He runs away and manages to give the money to the girl before he is taken off to jail. The girl gets her operation and opens up a successful flower shop, imagining her benefactor in every rich young man who comes into the shop. When the tramp gets out of jail, he wanders into the shop by accident. Naturally, she does not recognize him, and laughingly offers him a flower and a coin. He refuses the money, but when she presses it into his hand, she recognizes him by the feel of his skin and is moved.
Charles D. Hall
The Essentials - City Lights
The Tramp falls in love with a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) who, through a misunderstanding, mistakes him for a millionaire. Seeing an opportunity to be close to her, The Tramp does not correct her mistake. Soon The Tramp meets a real millionaire (Harry Myers) when he saves him from a drunken suicide attempt. Grateful, the millionaire treats The Tramp like a long lost friend and gives him a taste of the high life. The only problem is that the only time the millionaire recognizes him is when he's dead drunk. Meanwhile, The Tramp sets out to raise money for an operation that will restore the blind girl's sight, but what will she think of him when she finds out he is not the millionaire gentleman she thinks he is?
Director: Charles Chaplin
Writer: Charles Chaplin
Cinematography: Rollie Totheroh, Mark Marlatt and Gordon Pollock
Art Direction: Charles D. Hall
Editing: Charles Chaplin
Music Composer: Charles Chaplin
Music Director: Alfred Newman
Music Arranger: Arthur Johnston
Cast: Charles Chaplin (A Tramp), Virginia Cherrill (A Blind Girl), Florence Lee (The Grandmother), Harry Myers (An Eccentric Millionaire), Allan Garcia (James, the butler), Hank Mann (A Prizefighter).
Why CITY LIGHTS is Essential
When Chaplin made City Lights, sound had already been present in motion pictures for several years, and it was quickly becoming the norm. Chaplin was one of the last holdouts in making the transition to sound. He felt that The Little Tramp would simply not be the same if he were to talk. The art of pantomime, he feared, would be lost forever with the coming of sound. City Lights was a big risk for him. He wanted to prove that silent films still had relevance in the world when audiences only seemed to want more talkies. When City Lights succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, it was a major personal triumph. Even though he eventually did make the transition to sound, City Lights reminded everyone that a film could be just as funny and touching without spoken dialogue.
Charles Chaplin had been one of the top box office stars for years before City Lights. With the transition of the movies to sound, Chaplin worried not just about how audiences would respond to a silent film, but also how they would respond to him. The success of City Lights proved that Chaplin was still a relevant and beloved star that audiences were willing to line up around the block to see.
City Lights is considered by many to be Chaplin's masterpiece. Blending his trademark physical humor and pathos, the simplicity of the story has resonated with great poignancy over the years. City Lights, in turn, became a timeless classic that continues to find new audiences 80 years after its release.
The film contains one of Chaplin's most famous comic routines in which he is forced to get into the boxing ring with a brute twice his size. The routine, which has The Tramp darting around the ring gracefully hiding behind the referee for the majority of the match, kept audiences in stitches at the time of its release and has lost none of its brilliant comic timing over the years.
The last shot of City Lights that holds on The Tramp's face after he is recognized by the Blind Girl is hailed by many as one of the most heartbreaking, perfect shots in the history of cinema. Chaplin himself was quite proud of it, calling it in a 1966 interview "a beautiful sensation of not acting, of standing outside of myself. The key was exactly right -- slightly embarrassed, delighted about meeting her again -- apologetic without getting emotional about it. He was watching and wondering without any effort. It's one of the purest inserts--I call them inserts, close-ups--that I've ever done." Critic James Agee called the scene "the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies."
by Andrea Passafiume
The Essentials - City Lights
Pop Culture 101 - City Lights
Other filmmakers have attempted to make silent films in the sound era since City Lights using only visual narration and sound effects and/or music such as Russell Rouse's The Thief (1952) starring Ray Milland, Luc Besson's Le Dernier Combat (1983), and writer/director/star Charles Lane in Sidewalk Stories (1989).
Many of Chaplin's visual gags in City Lights have been repurposed by other filmmakers in such films as The Producers (1968) - champagne is poured into a violin player's pants - and Ken Russell's The Boyfriend (1971) - a Charlie Chaplin lookalike appears with a pooper scooper. The score from City Lights has also been used in other films such as All Night Long (1981) and Scent of a Woman (1992). Initially Chaplin's subplot about the eccentric millionaire who befriends The Tramp was based on an old story idea he had in which two rich members of a gentlemen's club conduct an experiment with a tramp. The rich men pick up the tramp when he is sleeping, lavish him with luxurious treatment, and then promptly return him to the street where they found him. Although this idea was abandoned for City Lights, it later became the basic concept for the 1983 comedy Trading Places. It is not known whether this was a coincidence or an intentional homage by the screenwriters.
Home movie footage shot on the set by Ralph Barton, one of Chaplin's friends, can be glimpsed in the 1983 documentary, The Unknown Chaplin.
by Andrea Passafiume
Pop Culture 101 - City Lights
Trivia - City Lights - Trivia & Fun Facts About CITY LIGHTS
There was one scene shot that was ultimately cut from City Lights that involved The Tramp and a piece of wood. As Eric L. Flom describes the scene in his book Chaplin in the Sound Era: An Analysis of the Seven Talkies: "Charlie is seen alone on a bustling city street, and notices a small block of wood stuck in the grating at his feet. Rather casually, he attempts to knock the wood through the grate with his cane, only to find it hopelessly stuck, rotating with each successive stab. His interest is piqued, and soon what began as an offhand curiosity becomes a full-blown fixation; the piece of wood envelops Charlie's total concentration. In the process, Charlie's obsession soon becomes everyone else's entertainment, attracting the attention of a window store clerk, stopping foot and automobile traffic, and, naturally, drawing the attention of police as well."
Albert Einstein and his wife Elsa were Chaplin's personal guests at the Los Angeles premiere of City Lights on January 30, 1931.
The crucial scene where The Tramp meets the Blind Girl for the first time was so important to Chaplin that he spent five days doing take after take to get it right. The scene is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for having "The Most Retakes of One Scene." According to Guinness, it took a total of 342 takes to get the scene the way that Chaplin wanted it.
Chaplin spent $60,000 of his own money to publicize the premiere of City Lights in New York. $30,000 went to newspaper ads, and the other $30,000 went to renting an electric sign for the front of the theater.
Actress Virginia Cherrill was Cary Grant's first wife. He was her second husband. They were married in 1934 and divorced just a year later.
Orson Welles is said to have stated that City Lights was one of his favorite movies.
During the filming of City Lights, Winston Churchill visited the set and footage exists of him and Chaplin together.
Famous Quotes from CITY LIGHTS
Note: "Quotes" are taken from dialogue in the silent film's title cards.
"Be careful how you're driving."
"Am I driving?"
-- The Tramp (Charles Chaplin) and The Eccentric Millionaire (Harry Myers)
"You can see now?"
"Yes, I can see now."
--The Tramp and the Blind Girl (Virginia Cherrill)
Compiled by Andrea Passafiume
Trivia - City Lights - Trivia & Fun Facts About CITY LIGHTS
The Big Idea - City Lights
Desperate to jump on the talking picture bandwagon, studios began forcing their well-established silent film stars to make talkies. Some of the stars, such as Greta Garbo, survived the transition. Others, however, did not. The careers of people who had ruled the box office during the height of the silent era, such as John Gilbert, suddenly came crashing down when audiences, for whatever reason, failed to accept their previously unheard voices on the silver screen. It was a scary and unstable time for everyone in Hollywood.
At the time Charlie Chaplin was one of the world's biggest movie stars. Since he owned his own studio and ran every aspect of it himself, he didn't have to worry about being thrown into a talking picture against his will. However, that didn't stop his fans and colleagues from wondering whether or not he would eventually take the leap like everyone else.
Chaplin made no bones about the fact that he was not impressed with the sound pictures he had seen and had no intention of making one himself. At first he kept tabs on the talkies and was convinced that the trend would just be a passing fancy. As sound technology continued to make improvements, however, Chaplin gradually began to see that sound would in all likelihood be there to stay. It was a fact that caused him great distress since, to him, pantomime was a language that could be understood and enjoyed by anyone in the world. Sound, he feared, would destroy it. "A good silent picture had universal appeal both to the intellectual and the rank and file," said Chaplin in his 1964 autobiography. "Now it was all to be lost."
Despite pressure to make a talking picture and avoid being left behind in the silent era dust, Chaplin decided to make his next film in the same manner that he always did: his way. "I was determined to continue making silent films," said Chaplin, "for I believed there was room for all types of entertainment. Besides, I was a pantomimist, and in that medium I was unique and, without false modesty, a master. So I continued with the production of another silent picture, City Lights."
The story idea for City Lights began when Chaplin thought up a scenario about a circus clown who loses his sight in an accident. On the advice of his doctor, the clown hides his ailment from his frail daughter, fearing that the shock might be too much for her. The blind clown evolved over time into the character of the blind flower girl.
The subplot of the eccentric millionaire who befriends The Tramp, according to Chaplin's autobiography, grew out of an old story idea he had in which two rich members of a gentlemen's club conduct an experiment with a tramp. The rich men pick up the tramp when he is sleeping, lavish him with luxurious treatment, and then promptly return him to the street where they found him.
When word got out that Chaplin's next film was going to be silent, people began to have doubts. The press openly speculated about whether his career would survive such a bold rebellious move. Chaplin was well aware of the risks. "Nevertheless, City Lights was an ideal silent picture, and nothing could deter me from making it," he said."
Before he began casting City Lights, Chaplin worried that the coming of sound would ruin his film in other ways. "Since the advent of talkies, which had now been established for three years, the actors had almost forgotten how to pantomime," he said. "All their timing had gone into talk and not action. Another difficulty was to find a girl who could look blind without detracting from her beauty."
Chaplin initially had a great deal of difficulty casting the crucial role of the Blind Girl. Many actresses applied for the job, but none was suitable to the notoriously meticulous Chaplin. However, one day he saw a film company shooting a scene on a beach in Santa Monica with several attractive young bathing beauties. One of the girls, Virginia Cherrill, was a casual acquaintance, so she waved and asked if she would ever get the chance to work with him. "Her shapely form in a blue bathing suit did not inspire the thought of her playing such a spiritual part as the Blind Girl," said Chaplin. "But after making one or two tests with other actresses, in sheer desperation I called her up."
To Chaplin's surprise, Virginia Cherrill seemed to understand what he was looking for more than any of the other actresses he tried. "I instructed her to look at me but to look inwardly and not to see me, and she could do it," said Chaplin. "Miss Cherrill was beautiful and photogenic, but she had little acting experience." Chaplin, needing to move forward with the production, decided to hire her. For the other important role of the Eccentric Millionaire, Chaplin hired Australian actor Henry Clive (he would later be replaced by Harry Myers).
As cameras prepared to roll on City Lights, the stakes were high for Chaplin. While he had the utmost confidence in his talents as an entertainer, he could not be certain that audiences would still find his silent work relevant in a world taken over by talking pictures. Still, he was determined to find out.
by Andrea Passafiume
The Big Idea - City Lights
Behind the Camera - City Lights
Since Chaplin owned his own studio, he was able to control every aspect of the production on City Lights. He could take his time and go at his own pace, spending as much time and money as he saw fit to get things done to his satisfaction. He demanded excellence from everyone working with him, but most of all he demanded it of himself.
Shooting got off to a somewhat rocky start when three days into the production Chaplin fired the actor playing the Millionaire, Henry Clive. When shooting the scene in which the Millionaire drunkenly tries to commit suicide by drowning himself, Clive refused to dive into the water. Some sources say that Clive had a cold at the time and asked Chaplin if they could wait until the sun had warmed the water before getting in. Chaplin responded by promptly replacing him with a new actor, former vaudevillian Harry Myers.
Chaplin also found himself often frustrated with co-star Virginia Cherrill and her lack of acting experience. For the crucial scene in which The Tramp meets the Blind Girl for the first time, Chaplin spent five days doing take after take over and over until Cherrill got it the way he wanted it. "This was not the girl's fault," said Chaplin, "but partly my own, for I had worked myself into a neurotic state of wanting perfection."
Chaplin's penchant for perfection carried over into all aspects of the production of City Lights. He had a very clear vision as to how every scene should play. Actor Robert Parrish, who had a small part as one of the newsboys who pelt The Tramp with peashooters, remembered in 1991: "Chaplin was a dervish. He would blow a pea from the peashooter, playing both my part and the part of Austen Jewell, the other newsboy. He then would run over and react as the Tramp being hit by it, then back to the newsboys and blow another pea. He would then play Virginia Cherrill's part of the Blind Girl. Then he was the Tramp. Then he would instruct what the background people should be doing. Everyone watched as he acted out all the parts for us. When he felt he had it all worked out, he reluctantly gave us back our parts...I believe he would have much rather played them all himself if he could."
According to Virginia Cherrill, she and Chaplin never cared for each other, and were never involved romantically like Chaplin had been with several of his other leading ladies. "I never liked Charlie...and he never liked me," she said in a later interview. "Most of the girls that worked for him had been involved with him," she said. "I was too old. I was twenty and had been divorced."
Cherrill and Chaplin butted heads often during the filming of City Lights, leaving Cherrill often frustrated. She described the experience of working with him as sometimes "painful. It seemed that the times you thought it was good, he'd hate it, and the other times when you felt flat and forced, he'd say it was great. If he enjoyed something, he'd do it forever until he was bored."
At one point, Chaplin went so far as to fire her. "There was no commissary at the studio and I had to 'brown bag' it every day," explained Cherrill. "I was not allowed to leave for lunch, but one day I did and was five minutes late. I kept Charlie waiting, which was not allowed. We got into a screaming row and I was fired."
As a result, Chaplin started testing other actresses for the part of the Blind Girl even though it would mean a tremendous amount of re-shooting. He came close to hiring his paramour and The Gold Rush (1925) co-star Georgia Hale. However, in the end he realized that it would make sense to keep the work that he already had and keep going. He re-hired Virginia Cherrill to resume her role, but not before she shrewdly made him double her salary.
One of Chaplin's most joyous times came during the film's famous boxing match scene that has The Tramp paired with a bruiser twice his size to hilarious effect. "The filming of the boxing scene was the only social life we had at the studio," recalled Virginia Cherrill. "Charlie must have had over a hundred extras present...and he encouraged his friends in town to come and watch. Everyone loved boxing in Hollywood in those days. And Charlie was so funny in the ring. The boxing scene became sort of a party at the studio. Charlie loved every minute of it."
While his demand for perfection could sometimes ruffle feathers, there was no question that Chaplin poured his heart and soul into the pantomime art that he deeply loved. The film's poignant final shot was one that he was particularly proud of, having put a great deal of work into it despite its deceptive simplicity. He felt "a beautiful sensation of not acting, of standing outside myself," he said. "The key was exactly right -- slightly embarrassed, delighted about meeting her again -- apologetic without getting emotional about it. He was watching and wondering without any effort. It's one of the purest inserts -- I call them inserts, close-ups -- that I've ever done."
Shooting on City Lights wrapped in the Fall of 1930. Chaplin immediately began working on post-production, editing the picture himself as he always did. City Lights would not be a silent film in its truest sense when Chaplin was through with it. Conceding the inevitability of sound, Chaplin added a few well-placed comic sound effects that utilized the technology to generate laughs without actual dialogue.
Chaplin also composed music for the synchronized soundtrack to accompany the film. "One happy thing about sound was that I could control the music," said Chaplin, "so I composed my own. I tried to compose elegant and romantic music to frame my comedies in contrast to the tramp character, for elegant music gave my comedies an emotional dimension. Musical arrangers rarely understood this. They wanted the music to be funny. But I would explain that I wanted no competition, I wanted the music to be a counterpoint of grace and charm, to express sentiment, without which, as Hazlitt says, a work of art is incomplete."
When all was said and done, City Lights was nearly three years in the making between its initial concept to its release in theaters. Chaplin had sunk over $2 million of his own money into it along the way to realize his vision. To remind sound-oriented audiences of what to expect from City Lights, Chaplin billed the film as "a comedy romance in pantomime written and directed by Charles Chaplin."
Before it was released into theaters, Chaplin had a secret sneak preview screening in downtown Los Angeles. Unfortunately, it was an experience that he described as "ghastly" because "our film was thrown on to the screen to a half-empty house. The audience had come to see a drama and not a comedy, and they did not recover from their bewilderment until halfway through the picture. There were laughs, but feeble ones." Some of the audience members even walked out in the middle of the film, according to Chaplin. "I left the theater with a feeling of two years' work and two million dollars having gone down the drain," he said in his autobiography.
Despite that setback, Chaplin prepared City Lights for its official Los Angeles premiere at the brand new downtown Los Angeles Theatre at 615 S. Broadway on January 30, 1931. To his delight, enthusiastic crowds had formed, which gave him hope that the public was still very interested in his films. "The main street was packed with people for several blocks," recalled Chaplin. "Police cars and ambulances were attempting to plow through the crowds, which had smashed in the shop windows next to the theater."
With his special guest Albert Einstein seated next to him, Chaplin settled in to see how this new audience would react to his latest effort. "The picture started," he said. "It showed the credit titles, to the usual first-night applause. Then at last the first scene opened. My heart pounded. It was a comedy scene of the unveiling of a statue. They began to laugh! The laughter increased into roars. I had got them! All my doubts and fears began to evaporate. And I wanted to weep. For three reels they laugh. And from sheer nerves and excitement I was laughing with them."
Right in the middle of the film, however, disaster struck--at least, it was a disaster to Charlie Chaplin. The theater manager, H.L. Gumbiner, was justifiably proud of the gorgeous new state-of-the-art Los Angeles Theatre. Unfortunately, he had terrible timing. To Chaplin's horror, Gumbiner had the film stopped halfway through. "Before continuing further with this wonderful comedy," boomed Gumbiner's voice over a loudspeaker to a bewildered audience, "we would like to take five minutes of your time and point out to you the merits of this beautiful new theater."
Chaplin was livid. "I could not believe my ears," he said. "I went mad. I leaped from my seat and raced up the aisle: 'Where's that stupid son of a bitch of a manager? I'll kill him!'"
The audience was on Chaplin's side. They began stomping their feet, calling out, and eventually booing the poorly timed intrusion. Finally getting the message, Gumbiner stopped and the film started back up. However, Chaplin wondered if the film could recover from such an incident. "It took a reel before the laughter got back into its stride," said Chaplin. "Under the circumstances I thought the picture went well. During the final scene I noticed Einstein wiping his eyes -- further evidence that scientists are incurable sentimentalists."
The following day Chaplin traveled to New York for the film's east coast premiere. To his chagrin, he noticed that there had been very little publicity done for the City Lights premiere there. Chaplin took matters into his own hands, asking United Artists to help get the word out and taking several big ads out in the local New York newspapers. "I spent $30,000 extra with the newspapers," said Chaplin, "then rented an electric sign for the front of the theater costing another $30,000. As there was little time and we had to hustle, I was up all night, experimenting with the projection of the film, deciding the size of the picture and correcting distortion." Chaplin spent the day of the premiere granting interviews with the press, all in an attempt to drum up interest in City Lights.
Just as Chaplin had hoped, the New York premiere was a triumph. The next morning he received some very good news. "I was awakened by my publicity man," he recalled, "who came bursting into my bedroom at eleven o'clock, shrieking with excitement: 'Boy, you've done it! What a hit! There's been a line running round the block ever since ten o'clock this morning and it's stopping the traffic. There are about ten cops trying to keep order. They're fighting to get it. And you should hear them yell!'"
It was music to Chaplin's ears as the movie houses stayed packed with people coming to see City Lights and the rave reviews started pouring in. The risk of making a silent film in a sound world had paid off, proving that his unique talents were still as relevant as ever.
City Lights went on to be a bona fide classic that has continued to find new audiences with each new generation. Considered by many to be Chaplin's finest masterpiece, the film became one of his most beloved and definitive films. Chaplin's achievement with City Lights was extraordinary. He was able to create a critical and commercial smash hit silent film three years after almost everyone else had jumped on the sound bandwagon. Although Chaplin would eventually make the full transition into sound, City Lights was a great personal triumph of supreme artistry, vision and determination.
by Andrea Passafiume
Behind the Camera - City Lights
Chaplin's only concession to the sound era in City Lights is to employ music and sound effects. His faith in his instincts was justified by several critics who chose the film as the best of its year, and by its later recognition as perhaps the finest of Chaplin's many masterpieces. Chaplin's unique blend of visual humor and pathos was never more fully realized than in this film, which was named to the National Film Registry in 1991.
Chaplin not only starred in City Lights but produced, directed, scored and edited it in addition to co-writing the script. The film's plot is constructed with elegant simplicity. Chaplin's Little Tramp, adrift in an unfriendly big city, befriends both a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) and an alcoholic millionaire (Harry Myers) who treats the tramp royally when drunk but doesn't even recognize him when sober. Determined to raise the money for an operation that will restore the girl's sight, the tramp tries jobs ranging from street-cleaner to prizefighter before the millionaire offers the needed cash as a gift. Unfortunately, the forgetful millionaire sobers up to believe he has been robbed and the poor tramp is sent to jail.
The movie's highlights include a slugfest between the skinny tramp and a brawny boxer (Hank Mann), and a touching finale in which the now-sighted girl at last recognizes her benefactor. It was rare for Chaplin to begin a film with an ending clearly in mind, but in this case he considered the conclusion to be all-important and constructed the entire film to lead up to this poignant moment. The celebrated critic James Agee wrote of this exquisitely wrought final sequence, "It is enough to shrivel the heart to see, and it is the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies."
Producer/Director/Film Editor: Charles Chaplin
Screenplay: Charles Chaplin, Albert Austin, Harry Crocker
Cinematography: Gordon Pollock, Rollie Totheroh
Original Music: Charles Chaplin, Jose Padilla (uncredited)
Principal Cast: Charles Chaplin (The Tramp), Virginia Cherrill (The Blind Girl), Harry Myers (The Millionaire), Allan Garcia (The Millionaire's Butler), Hank Mann (The Boxer), Florence Lee (Blind Girl's Grandmother), Jean Harlow (customer in restaurant, uncredited).
by Roger Fristoe
Critics' Corner - City Lights
In 1991 City Lights was added to the National Film Registry for preservation.
City Lights was named one of the ten best films of 1931 by the New York Times.
The National Board of Review named City Lights the best film of 1931.
In 2007 City Lights was ranked number 11 on the American Film Institute's 10th Anniversary list of the 100 greatest American films of all time.
In 2003 Chaplin's Tramp character in City Lights was ranked number 38 on the American Film Institute's list of the top 100 movie heroes of all time.
In 2000 the American Film Institute ranked City Lights number 38 on its list of the top 100 funniest American movies of all time.
In 2006 the American Film Institute ranked City Lights number 33 on its list of the top 100 most inspiring American films of all time.
In 2002 the American Film Institute ranked City Lights number 10 on its list of the top 100 greatest love stories ever made.
The American Film Institute currently ranks City Lights as the number 1 romantic comedy of all time.
Time magazine critics Richard Corliss and Richard Schickel included City Lights on their list of the top 100 films ever made.
Critic Reviews: CITY LIGHTS
"Charlie Chaplin, master of screen mirth and pathos, presented at the George M. Cohan last night before a brilliant gathering his long-awaited non-dialogue picture, City Lights, and proved so far as he is concerned the eloquence of silence...It is a film worked out with admirable artistry, and while Chaplin stoops to conquer, as he has invariably done, he achieves success."
-- The New York Times
"It's not Chaplin's best picture, because the comedian has sacrificed speed to pathos, and plenty of it...But the British comic is still the consummate pantomimist, unquestionably one of the greatest the stage or screen has ever known. Certain sequences in City Lights are hilarious. Perhaps the high spot is a burlesque prize fight which in rehearsal time alone must have taken weeks to shoot...Cast support is minor other than in Myers, who does exceptionally well in foiling the star. Miss Cherrill is very fair of face but demands upon her are not enough to permit rating other than expected. Chaplin making a silent is merely sticking to his last. He never talked on the stage when in vaudeville before going into pictures, and, having made himself the foremost exponent of pantomime the world knows today, there doesn't appear any reason why he should talk. With his ability to create and take familiar situations to make them look differently he can go on making successful silent films until he chooses to retire--so long as they entertain. Talkers have not affected Chaplin and neither will he affect talkers. There will always be room for a Chaplin...There was no one like him before in pictures, and since sound came in that is doubly true. The only thing sound can do to a silent Chaplin is, perhaps, make him slightly less important in the general public eye as time goes on."
"If only one of Charles Chaplin's films could be preserved, City Lights would come the closest to representing all the different notes of his genius. It contains the slapstick, the pathos, the pantomime, the effortless physical coordination, the melodrama, the bawdiness, the grace, and, of course, the Little Tramp--the character said, at one time, to be the most famous image on earth."
-- Roger Ebert
"Chaplin's masterpiece tells story of his love for blind flower girl, and his hot-and-cold friendship with a drunken millionaire. Eloquent, moving and funny. One of the all-time greats."
-- Leonard Maltin, Movie and Video Guide
"Chaplin's most masterful blend of pathos and comedy...You can't leave the planet without seeing this movie at least once."
-- The San Francisco Chronicle
"The most wistfully Chaplinesque of Chaplin features. The final shot is among the most celebrated in movies."
-- J. Hoberman, The Village Voice
Compiled by Andrea Passafiume
Critics' Corner - City Lights
The Chaplin Collection, Volume 2 on DVD
The best way to begin the set is with the Richard Schickel documentary. Considering the sheer volume of Chaplin's artistic output and his tumultuous personal life, Schickel does a good job of condensing it all into a 133-minute running time; he even incorporates a generous selection of clips from Chaplin's most important works. Film historians and Chaplin biographers David Robinson, David Thomson, Jeanine Basinger and Jeffrey Vance lend the film scholarly weight. For me, the most interesting parts of the documentary were the remarkably preserved color home movies and the recollections by several of his children. The testimonies by contemporary filmmakers and actors are generally insightful, though there is perhaps too much of that sort of thing. For example, mime artist Bill Irwin's footage easily could have been removed without compromising the film as a whole.
Thankfully, the documentary doesn't shy away from the more controversial aspects of Chaplin's life, namely his attraction to young women (or rather, girls) and his leftist sympathies. If I do have a criticism of Schickel's documentary in this respect, it is a question of emphasis. The decision by the INS to deny Chaplin the right of re-entry to the U.S. in September 1952 seems somewhat abrupt the way it is presented in the documentary, but it was in fact the culmination of years of harassment by the INS and dogged surveillance by the FBI, to say nothing of soured public opinion toward the actor. Chaplin biographers have reported, for example, that The American Legion picketed Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight (1952), effectively ruining both films' box office prospects. Seen in that light, Chaplin's decision not to return to the U.S. is more readily understandable. Fortunately, this issue is treated in more detail elsewhere in the set. Still, this is a minor quibble with an otherwise absorbing and well-produced documentary.
The 2-disc set titled The Chaplin Revue covers the shorts produced for First National from 1918 to 1923. Shot at the newly constructed Chaplin Studios and distributed by First National Exhibitor's Circuit, these films contain longer and more complex narratives than his earlier two-reelers produced for Essanay and Mutual, and they show Chaplin expanding the boundaries of his screen persona. These films are also noteworthy for their more elaborate production design; Shoulder Arms, for instance, contains surprisingly realistic reconstructions of World War I trenches. In 1959, Chaplin trimmed down A Dog's Life, Shoulder Arms and The Pilgrim and compiled them into a single 2-hour feature--the original The Chaplin Revue--adding a prologue using footage from the unreleased How to Make Movies, brief introductions to each of the films, and musical scores that he himself composed in collaboration with Eric James. It is this version that makes up the second disc, while the first disc contains the remaining four films. On the copy I purchased, the discs are misprinted: Disc 1 is labeled as Disc 2, and vice versa.
In A Dog's Life, the Tramp takes on a canine companion--an abandoned mutt not unlike himself--while he attempts to woo a saloon-hall girl. He stumbles across some stolen loot and plans to take the girl away with him to the country, but the thieves try to steal the money back. One of the best First National shorts, A Dog's Life somehow succeeds at transforming the sordid world of urban poverty and crime into hilarious comic gags, from the Tramp's fruitless attempts to fight his way to the front of the employment line to his stealing food from a street vendor's cart. In its unsparing treatment of poverty and its use of a comic sidekick, the film looks forward to Chaplin's even more accomplished feature-length debut, The Kid. Shoulder Arms uses Charlie's persona to celebrate the courage of ordinary fighting men while poking fun at the ordeals of trench warfare. The film was a tremendous popular success, not least with war veterans. In The Pilgrim, Chaplin plays an escaped convict who steals a preacher's outfit and poses as a minister in a small town. The highlight of this film is a madcap church service culminating in a sermon on David and Goliath delivered in pantomime. Special features on this disc include extended scenes from Shoulder Arms deleted before its initial release; The Bond (1918), a crude but amusing propaganda film promoting the sale of war bonds, and the reconstructed, previously unreleased 16-minute short How to Make Movies (1918), which combines footage of Chaplin's new studio being built with a humorous take on the film production process.
Although generally considered one of the lesser First National films, Sunnyside nonetheless contains some clever gags inspired by its rural setting. Here Chaplin plays a daydreaming clerk at a small-town hotel; he is forced to compete for his girlfriend's attentions with a visiting city slicker. The weakest film of the batch is A Day's Pleasure; hastily shot to appease First National while Chaplin worked on The Kid, its narrative is less solidly constructed and some of its gags, especially those involving seasickness on the boat, are overly reminiscent of earlier films. Even in his major films Chaplin often recycled older routines, but here one doesn't get the same sense of refinement and invention that distinguish his best routines. The strongest film on the second disc is The Idle Class, in which Chaplin plays twin roles: the familiar Tramp and an alcoholic, wealthy husband. It contains one of Chaplin's classic bits as a comedian: we assume that the husband is sobbing when his wife leaves him a note condemning his alcoholism, but in reality he is merely shaking up another cocktail. In Pay Day the setting is a construction site, where Charlie has to labor all day in order to take money home to his shrewish wife. Once again, Chaplin displays a knack for turning a depressing social milieu into rich comic material. Special features on this disc include a deleted scene from Sunnyside, footage of Chaplin clowning around with the British Music Hall comedian Harry Lauder, and footage of visitors to the Chaplin Studio--among them fellow comedian Max Linder and Prince Axel of Denmark.
Chaplin worked for over a year on his first feature, The Kid (1921), and the degree of care that went into it is reflected in the luminous finished product. The film is remarkable for its evocation of poverty; the slum scenes are at times as tellingly detailed as Lewis Hine photographs. Jackie Coogan's performance is rightly regarded as one of the great child performances of all time. Not only does he provide the ideal companion for Chaplin's gags, his more emotional scenes have a conviction and a purity of expression that has never been equaled. An instructive lesson in Chaplin's skill as a director, if only by way of contrast, is provided by My Boy (1921), a subsequent Jackie Coogan vehicle included as a bonus on the second disc of this title. The basic situation is similar: Coogan plays an immigrant orphan boy who is taken in by a crusty old seaman until he is reunited with his wealthy grandmother. However, that film's direction is uninspired compared to The Kid and Coogan, while undeniably talented, does not display nearly the emotional range that Chaplin was able to evoke from him.
A Woman of Paris (1923), Chaplin's second feature and his first film for United Artists, marked a decisive break both in terms of Chaplin's complete absence as an actor--except for an unbilled cameo--and the film's serious intentions. Edna Purviance, Chaplin's favorite leading lady at this time, plays Marie St. Clair, a young French woman who is thrown out of her house when she announces her intention to marry. She takes the train to Paris, where she becomes the mistress of a wealthy playboy (played by a perfectly cast Adolphe Menjou). Tragic complications ensue when her former fiance meets her again years later. At the time, critics regarded it as a milestone in its subtlety of acting, but the public showed little interest in a Chaplin film that didn't star Chaplin himself. In retrospect, A Woman of Paris is one of the best dramatic films of the Twenties; it set the mold for the worldly comedies of Ernst Lubitsch starting with The Marriage Circle (1924), which also starred Adolphe Menjou. Unfortunately, the film's commercial failure, which was deeply painful to Chaplin, foreclosed a promising path in his creative development. Special features on this disc include: deleted shots; footage of Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith signing the contract for United Artists; and Camille (1926), an utterly bizarre home-movie riff on La Dame aux Camelias featuring, among others, such luminaries as Chaplin, Paul Robeson, Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Clarence Darrow, Alfred Knopf, Ethel Barrymore, Dorothy Gish and W. Somerset Maugham!
The Circus (1928) was Chaplin's most troubled production, drawn out over two years due to interruptions such as an exceptionally ugly divorce case and the complete destruction of the circus set by fire. Miraculously, the resulting film is a perfectly judged balancing act of virtuoso comedy--unmatched to this day for sheer belly laughs--and a poignant, classically structured narrative. The Tramp, wrongly accused of being a pickpocket, flees the police and winds up in a circus. There he befriends and falls in love with a young circus rider who is mistreated by her father, the circus proprietor. The latter is portrayed as a sneering, mustachioed villain. The Tramp's unintentional pratfalls become the hit of the circus, but his plans to woo the daughter are complicated when the dashing high-wire artist Rex joins the troupe. The genius of the film is not that the story or gags break new ground per se--indeed, everything here is already familiar, as Chaplin clearly intended. Rather, Chaplin distills the conventionalized narrative and comic elements into a self-reflexive commentary on the nature of comedy and performance. Although the film was enthusiastically received during its initial release, over the years it has been shamefully neglected by critics, even by Chaplin himself, who associated the film with the difficulties he suffered while making it. Now The Circus can reclaim its rightful place among his masterpieces. Special features on the disc include: a reconstructed, unused sequence in which the Tramp gets into a fistfight with twin boxers; outtakes from the same sequence; excerpts from another Jackie Coogan vehicle, Circus Day; and home movie footage of Chaplin shot by Lord Louis and Lady Mountbatten
City Lights (1931), Chaplin's first film of the sound era, was even longer in production than The Circus because of his meticulous working methods. Once again, this shows in the perfection of the finished product. The film's plot has become legendary: the Tramp befriends a blind flower girl, who mistakes him for a millionaire. He perpetuates her illusion while attempting to raise money for an operation to restore her sight. The finale, in which the Tramp visits the girl after she can see again, is rightly regarded as one of the pinnacles of screen acting; the same material would have been cloyingly sentimental in another director's hands, but in Chaplin's it is sweetly understated and still has lost none of its power to move. Standout gags in the film include the famed boxing match, so often described as "balletic," and the moment when the Tramp, dressed as a wealthy man, jumps out of his convertible to fight with a fellow tramp for a discarded cigar butt. While Chaplin decided that the film would have to be silent--that he couldn't give his Tramp an actual voice--his use of the soundtrack nonetheless demonstrates mastery of the newly developed sound medium: not only did Chaplin compose the score himself, but at several points he cleverly integrated sound effects with the visual gags, such as when he swallows a whistle at a party. Ultimately, I prefer the more energetic pacing and even tighter narrative construction of The Circus, but one can only admire City Lights for its grace and its coherent artistic vision.
Monsieur Verdoux (1947) was one of Chaplin's few flops in the U.S. due to its ruthless black comedy and the political controversies plaguing Chaplin at that time. Inspired by the real-life French serial killer Henri Landru, it depicts a fired bank clerk, Henri Verdoux, who maintains a placid home life while simultaneously wooing, marrying, then murdering several women for their money. In spite of its production constraints, the film is brilliant in the way it manipulates audience identification with the murderer: the victims are largely physically unattractive, crass and shrewish, making us glad to be rid of them. At the same time, Verdoux himself is cultured and supremely sensitive, if a bit dandyish. However, when we see Verdoux at home with his "real" wife, child, and friends, maintaining a facade of innocence and normality, it leaves a queasy feeling in our stomachs. Chaplin jerks the viewer's emotions around further with the sprightly music on the soundtrack that accompanies Verdoux while he concocts his murderous schemes. The culmination of this strategy is probably the moment when Verdoux, having perfected his formula for an untraceable poison, rubs his hands together, faces the camera and says, "And now, for the experiment." Finally, Chaplin uses the figure of Verdoux to make some acidic commentary on the murderous nature of capitalism itself. Fans of Hollywood character actors will particularly relish the presence of comedienne Martha Raye as the loudmouthed lottery winner. Special features include film posters, radio commercials and sketches for the sets.
The last film in the collection is A King in New York (1957), which is packaged together with A Woman in Paris. A rambling satire of American values, it stars Chaplin as King Shadov, who has fled a revolution in his country and settled in New York. Robbed of his finances (or rather, the country's finances) by a corrupt minister, he is reduced to appearing in television commercials. The best part of the film is the second half, which turns into a bitter attack on McCarthyism. King Shadov befriends a precocious--and obnoxious--young boy named Rupert (played pitch-perfect by Chaplin's son Michael) who constantly spouts political diatribes. When the boy's parents are called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and refuse to name names, he is seized by the authorities and King Shadov, tarnished by his association with the child of political outcasts, is summoned before HUAC as well. Given the film's forthright critique of Red Scare paranoia, it's hardly surprising that it wasn't shown in the U.S. until 1976. Special features include deleted scenes and footage of Chaplin conducting the orchestra during rehearsals for the soundtrack recording.
In terms of special features, one of the most distinctive touches on the box set is the series of short films titled Chaplin Today that accompany each of the feature films. About 25 minutes each, they include interviews with contemporary filmmakers such as Abbas Kiarostami, Liv Ullmmann, Claude Chabrol, Emir Kusturica and animator Peter Lord. While not all the interviews are equally illuminating, the episodes usually contain additional background information not covered in the Schickel documentary or in David Robinson's introductions. The installment for A King in New York is probably the best in the collection, providing an excellent overview of the film's controversial reception and an eloquent defense of the film by Jim Jarmusch.
THE VERSIONS USED
The versions of the silent films used on this box set were those prepared for reissue by Chaplin himself, mostly created in the 1970s with the exception of the 1959 Chaplin Revue. For these versions Chaplin often cut brief scenes, added his own musical scores, and in some cases used stretch printing to slow the action, since most modern film projectors run only at 24 frames per second. While on the surface it would seem that using the "authorized" versions is the preferred way to present Chaplin's films, this in fact does not always show the films to their best advantage. First, it must be said up front that Chaplin did not always display the best judgment later in life when reworking his own films. The most notorious example of this is his 1942 reissue version of The Gold Rush (1923), which is contained in Volume 1 of The Chaplin Collection. Hoping to create a version that would play better to modern audiences, Chaplin removed the title cards and added his own voiceover narration explaining the action. Today the result is all but unwatchable, but fortunately in that set a restored print of the original silent version has been included as a bonus on the second disc.
The cuts Chaplin made in the films included on Volume 2 may have tightened up their pacing, but sometimes at the expense of character development. A good example of this is in the original version of A Woman of Paris: during the confrontation between Marie and her father we see a close-up of a photograph of Marie's mother; the frame is decorated with a black ribbon. This shot was cut from the reissue version, in which we see the portrait only in long shot. While this detail may seem superfluous, the close-up serves to emphasize the motivation behind the father's harsh treatment of his daughter: after losing his wife, he is afraid to be left alone and thus doesn't want Marie to get married. This touch is in keeping with the generous humanistic vision of Chaplin's film, which encourages sympathy toward all the characters, even when they are doing things hurtful to others. Without the added emphasis of the close-up, the father comes off as somewhat less sympathetic. While such deleted shots are often included as extras on the Warner/MK2 box set, they have not been included in every case. Besides, I would argue that the original release versions in most cases still play better as films. In that respect, I tend to prefer the now out-of-print 1993 versions of the same films prepared by David Shepard for CBS Fox on laserdisc and subsequently released on DVD by Image Entertainment. One notable exception is A King in New York, where Chaplin's cuts arguably improved the film's pacing without losing anything essential.
Considering the remarkable improvements in video transfer technology over the last decade, one would expect the transfers for the new MK2/Warner set to be superior to the older DVD releases. Surprisingly, this is not always the case. On the whole, the new transfers do display the increased sharpness and improved rendering of contrast that one would expect; this is especially true for the full-length feature films. However, because the MK2/Warner set transfers were originally made in PAL and simply converted to NTSC for the American release, there is slight but persistent "ghosting," especially in scenes with fast motion. In addition, in the First National films, particularly A Dog's Life and The Idle Class, the actors' movement appears jerky compared to the Shepard transfers; most likely this is because of the aforementioned stretch printing. Unfortunately, the combination of stretch printing and PAL-NTSC ghosting really hurts some of the First National films, since the distorted movements detract from Chaplin's performance as an actor.
The film that comes off the worst in the MK2/Warner is A Woman of Paris. While the occasional moments of film element damage visible in the older Shepard transfer have been completely removed through digital restoration techniques, the new transfer is somewhat irritating to the eyes due to excessive edge enhancement and contrast boosting (the latter resulting in blown-out highlights), combined with the aforementioned PAL-NTSC ghosting. While the Shepard transfer has weaker contrast and is slightly softer, its look is more film-like and ultimately more satisfying, particularly with its more subtle range of grays. The Shepard version also plays more effectively from a dramatic standpoint due to its slightly slower projection speed. A minor disadvantage to the Shepard version is that phrases from Chaplin's score have been repeated, sometimes awkwardly, to stretch the music out to the longer running time, but that is not enough to deter me from preferring the out-of-print Shepard version on the whole.
The impact of Chaplin on the development of film as an art form can never be overestimated. Besides creating the most recognizable persona in cinema (alongside Mickey Mouse) and setting standards for physical comedy that have never been equaled (excepting, perhaps, Buster Keaton), he infused his films with humaneness and enlivened them with subtle details that make his work appealing even today. Volume 2 of The Chaplin Collection is indispensable for both the casual DVD collector and the serious film scholar, even if the transfers in some cases are not quite what they could have been. Collectors who own the Shepard-produced laserdiscs or DVDs are strongly advised to hold onto them, and serious Chaplin buffs might want to try locating the Shepard/Image Entertainment DVDs of The First National films and A Woman of Paris on the out-of-print market.
For more information about The Chaplin Collection, Volume 2, visit Warner Video. To order The Chaplin Collection, Volume 2, go to TCM Shopping.
by James Steffen
The Chaplin Collection, Volume 2 on DVD
Chaplin Today: City Lights
Producer: Serge Toubiana
Director: Serge Bromberg
Cast: Peter Lord
BW & C-27m. Closed Captioning.
Chaplin Today: City Lights
Be careful how you're driving.- The Tramp
Am I driving?- Eccentric Millionaire
This was Orson Welles' favorite movie of all time.
Charles Chaplin reshot the scene in which the Little Tramp buys a flower from the blind flower-girl 342 times, as he could not find a satisfactory way of showing that the blind flower-girl thought that the mute tramp was wealthy.
Towards the end of filming, director Charles Chaplin fired leading lady Virginia Cherill when she arrived late to shoot a scene. Chaplin then planned to reshoot all of Cherill's scenes using Georgia Hale, his leading lady from Gold Rush, The (1925). He shot some of the end scenes using Hale, but soon realised the cost of reshooting all the scenes would bankrupt the movie, and so rehired Virginia Cherill... after she had negotiated a 100% pay rise.
The famous Flower Girl theme was written by Jose Padilla.
Chaplin's first film made during the sound era. He faced extreme pressure to make the film as a talkie, but such was his popularity and power in Hollywood that Chaplin was able to complete and release City Lights as a silent (albeit with recorded music) at a time when the rest of the American motion picture industry had converted to sound.
Onscreen credits refer to the film as a "comedy romance in pantomine." The premiere of City Lights opened the Los Angeles Theater. It was the first time a gala premiere was held in downtown Los Angeles rather than in Hollywood. Charles Chaplin attended, accompanied by Georgia Hale and Albert Einstein and his wife. According to his autobiography, Chaplin felt that the cinema was essentially a pantomimic art and that sound limited the actor's gestural expressions. When he began preparations for the film in 1928, he intended to release it as a completely silent film, but by 1931, talking pictures were so popular that he added a musical soundtrack. In an early scene, Chaplin makes fun of the tinny sound of early talking films by mimicking speaking voices with saxophones. According to modern sources, Chaplin felt that musical accompaniment should act as a counterpoint to the comedy of the film and used special sound effects in only a few scenes: the scene where he swallows a whistle; the voices of the officials at the beginning of the film; pistol shots; and the bells in the boxing ring. Modern sources credit Ted Reed with sound and recording.
According to publicity material in the copyright files, Chaplin spent $1,500,000 of his own money in making the film. A river was built at Chaplin's studio, which covered an area of five acres and cost $15,000 to construct. Two streets representing a downtown business section were also constructed at a cost of $100,000. According to his autobiography, Chaplin was angered over United Artists' lack of pre-release publicity and decided to exhibit the picture himself. He spent his own money to rent the George M. Cohan Theater and took out half-page advertisments to publicize the fact. In its twelve-week run at the Cohan, the film made a net profit of over $400,000. It became one of the top moneymaking films of 1931 and was named to the New York Times's list of the ten best films of the year. The National Board of Review named it the best film of 1931. When the film was re-released in 1950, it was banned in Memphis, TN by censor Lloyd T. Benford because of Chaplin's "immoral" character. This judgment resulted from several personal incidents that plagued Chaplin's career. Actress Joan Barry accused him in 1943 of fathering her child. Chaplin was initially acquitted on these charges when blood tests proved conclusively that he could not be the child's father, but the decision was overturned during a retrial in 1944. Also in 1944, Chaplin was indicted by a Federal grand jury on charges of violating the Mann Act, a law that makes it illegal to transport a woman across state lines for immoral purposes. Modern sources add the following information about the production: Allan Garcia, who plays James in the film, was also the casting director. Henry Clive was originally cast as the millionaire, but when he refused to fall into the water in a necessary scene, Chaplin fired him and hired Harry Myers. Modern sources note that at one point, Chaplin, displeased with Cherrill, thought of replacing her with Georgia Hale. Marian Marsh also tested for the part before Cherrill was asked to return. The exterior of the millionaire's house was shot at Town House on Wilshire Boulevard. Chaplin's former colleague from silent days, Albert Austin who is credited as assistant director, appears in the scene in which Chaplin mistakes a cheese sandwich for a bar of soap.
Released in United States 1973
Released in United States August 1989
Released in United States February 7, 1931
Released in United States October 1998
Released in United States Winter January 30, 1931
Re-released in United States 1950
Shown at Hamptons International Film Festival (Archival Film Series) in East Hampton, New York October 14-18, 1998.
Shown at Vevey International Festival of Comedy Films August 1989.
Re-released in United States 1950
Released in United States 1973 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (The Great American Films) November 15 - December 16, 1973.)
Released in United States Winter January 30, 1931
Selected in 1991 for inclusion in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.
Released in United States August 1989 (Shown at Vevey International Festival of Comedy Films August 1989.)
Released in USA on video.
Released in United States February 7, 1931
Released in United States October 1998 (Shown at Hamptons International Film Festival (Archival Film Series) in East Hampton, New York October 14-18, 1998.)