Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece of pantomime gets the much-deserved “Criterion treatment.”
In 1928, while the rest of Hollywood was scrambling to incorporate speech into motion pictures after the immediate success of The Jazz Singer, Charlie Chaplin was busy making yet another silent film: City Lights.
Fully aware that technology and audience preference were about to make his particular craft obsolete, Chaplin focused his tireless nature on creating a film that served as both his final ode to the art of pantomime as well as a thumb to the nose for anyone who thought talking would make film more entertaining. The end result is a masterpiece of filmmaking that is just as effective at drawing laughs and tears as it was when it premiered in 1931.
Everything that made Chaplin a delight to watch is on display in City Lights, from slapstick to sight gags to moments of incredible poignancy. And tying it all together was Chaplin’s remarkable ability to know just how to tug at the audience’s heart strings one moment, only to turn the action on a dime for a laugh.
I think a film that’s been out for 81 years eclipses the statute of limitations on “spoiler alerts,” but if you haven’t seen the film yet, you might want to skip past this paragraph. Otherwise, here’s a recap of the plot: Chaplin’s Tramp encounters, and quickly becomes smitten, with a blind flower girl who mistakes him for a wealthy man. Meanwhile, the Tramp saves an actual rich man from suicide, for which he is eternally grateful, but only when he’s drunk. The Tramp’s friendship with the drunk rich man helps perpetuate the illusion that he’s wealthy in the flower girl’s eyes, and the Tramp makes it his ultimate goal to help her solve her financial difficulties as well as regain her sight. Maintaining a friendship with the rich man proves difficult, but pays its dividends in the end when the man gives the Tramp enough money to help the flower girl financially, just before regaining sobriety and accusing the Tramp of burglary. After serving several months in jail, the Tramp—ragged as ever —happens upon the flower girl, who now has sight and her own flower shop. She’s been waiting for him to return, but has no idea about his real identity. What happens next is one of the most powerful moments in film history, and the perfect ending to a masterpiece:
Considering how well this film has stood the test of time, it’s only fitting that it has received the “Criterion treatment” in an expansive Blu-ray/DVD issue that features a magnificent digital restoration of the film and soundtrack, as well as numerous special features that shed more light on Chaplin’s state of mind as he crafted what many consider his magnum opus. I found the included documentary featuring Wallace and Gromit creator Peter Lord to be particularly enlightening, as he breaks down some of his favorite scenes and shares from a filmmaker’s perspective just how brilliant Chaplin was. This is essential viewing for any Chaplin aficionado, and well worth every penny.
Christian Williams is Editor in Chief of Utne Reader; contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams. He also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at www.christianwwilliams.com.