Charlie Chaplin’s solution to expanding the one- and two-reel entertainments of his early career into the feature-length motion-picture format, which he helped legitimize as an industry standard, was to weave two or three short narratives together, without much rhyme or reason—or string them in a series. The audience’s attention would slalom, not always gently, between comedic and tragic poles, while his specialty, the comic set piece, would serve either as clause or conjunction, depending on contingencies.
Now and then, his itinerant Tramp would take pains to hold down a day job. In Modern Times, this was the seed for a bouquet of epic, surrealist sequences that have been burned into our collective retinae. In City Lights, his moments as a legitimate blue-collar guy are strictly ephemera. Who remembers that he spent a little time as one of those guys who used to clean up animal shit from the streets? The menial occupation serves merely as a pretext for a vaudeville-sourced routine of giving a co-worker soap for his cheese sandwich, which gives way to a spectacle of belching soap bubbles, and so on. Not long after, he’s fired, drifting a little further down his tether.
The first great peak in City Lights, the boxing scene, may be the most brilliant single comedy sequence of his career, not least because of the participation of Hank Mann, who plays the Tramp’s Bluto-like opponent in the ring, and Eddie Baker, who plays the referee. Mann and Baker, themselves titans of silent comedy, fellow Keystone Kops who occasionally lent a hand to their heirs apparent (like Jerry Lewis), dance through the routine with Chaplin as Rogers danced with Astaire; the elaborate set piece is a technical marvel, driven home by professionals, now galvanized by several layers of nostalgia. The Tramp loses the fight, and again he finds himself a little further down the tether.
Is the Tramp a vehicle to convey our identification? Alongside Griffith, Chaplin was one of the original draftsmen of mental frames used by audiences to experience screen scenarios, and Chaplin, indeed, borrowed just a little from Griffith: the Gish-ian gamin, the crucial close-up of a revelatory letter, and the dramatic consequences of the revelation. But the Tramp was above all, and never more emphatically than in City Lights, the Janus-head between what is absurd (comic, tragic, or cryptic), and what is right (just, pure, and balanced). His acquaintance with a carousing millionaire, whom he saves from a watery suicide, serves the overall City Lights build with questionable reinforcement: the pattern of the rich man who treats Charlie like a brother when he drinks, but forgets their friendship when sober, becomes predictable, and when the opportunity arises to spare a measly thousand or so to repair a flower girl’s eyesight, the closing trap can be seen from a great distance.
The other high point is, of course, the finale, which burns out the rheostat of classic film-ness, by any measure. The blind flower girl that Charlie fell for, earlier in the film, with a love that stands astride pure, paternal beaming, abject idolatry, and profane desire, can now see, her surgery funded by cash stolen from/gifted by an inconveniently amnesiac millionaire. The gut-twist ending is an eight-car pileup of all that had previously been held at bay, sometimes by nothing stronger than a ceremonial adherence to Dickensian suspense and other storytelling expedients. But as precisely orchestrated crescendos go, the finale works like the proverbial gangbusters, something on the order of the big finish at the end of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” Beneath it all is Chaplin’s possibly mad, tear-crusted gaze, the rictus grin, destroying the flower in fingers he can’t make not fidget. Rare in Chaplin’s cinema but not impossible was the scene where the Tramp is pushed too far, and his quaint, hardscrabble version of the Gentleman, upholstered by chivalrous and aristocratic affectations, would fall away to reveal a feral animal, a too-experimented-upon rat broken by cruel machines or circumstances. There’s the “GAS!” scene in Easy Street, and the famous assembly line spaz-out in Modern Times. Prison in City Lights has been unkind to Charlie—an unspecified spell of years elided, we can only assume it’s an embodiment of whatever’s exactly the opposite of the movie’s title—and as he feels his way feebly through the home stretch, you’re not wrong to doubt that even the ideal conclusion, well arranged, can fix his broken brain.
At times as crisp as a preserved television kinescope or a glossy publicity photo, Criterion’s Blu-ray production uses best-case-scenario materials and smartly draws down wear and digital artifacts to give the viewer a good approximation to running a print of City Lights in the home, or, perhaps, screening it in a tiny theater. The clarity of Criterion’s image emphasizes the expressive, Langian paucity of Chaplin’s studio sets, maybe betraying his tireless perfectionism in every particular a little too honestly. The tinny mono (music and occasional f/x only) can be interpreted as a purposeful punk gesture on Chaplin’s part, who took longer to get aboard the talkie bandwagon than most world cinemas outside the United States, but your heart will easily synchronize with the flutter and quiver of his musical score, underwritten by José Padilla’s theme for the blind flower girl.
A fair-sized arsenal by the standards of most releases, Criterion’s payload of supplements is a little out of proportion to the movie’s status: If any movie deserves the nine-course treatment, it’s City Lights, and, at best, this is the midday lunch special. Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance provides a cleanly academic audio commentary—a little vanilla, but comprehensive. An MK2TV featurette takes a welcome detour from vapidly restating the ironclad Chaplin mythos, spending some time with Aardman Animation cofounder Peter Lord. A still more interesting detour is given by visual effects expert Craig Barron, who provides some insight into Chaplin’s creative process, with a focus on art direction and special mechanical effects. Of particular interest is an excerpt from Chaplin’s 1915 Essanay short, The Champion, a precursor to the amazing boxing sequence in City Lights.
Almost reflexively declared to be one of the greatest films of all time, City Lights arrives on Blu-ray with modest accompaniment. Scratch around a little and you’ll piece together why Chaplin’s blockbuster is worth the fanfare, as well as a renewal by the present generation of cinephiles.