BluRay/DVD Reviews

CITY LIGHTS (Criterion Collection)

By • Mar 4th, 2014 •

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Few filmmakers have ever achieved the kind of creative and financial freedom Charlie Chaplin had in the 1920s and 30s. He had his own studio, and could take as much time as he wanted in making a film. Until after his death, there was a great deal of secrecy that hung over his work. To this day rumors persist that there are unseen, completed Chaplin shorts and features.

CITY LIGHTS, released in 1931, tells the story of Chaplin’s little tramp trying to win the affections of a blind flower girl, who has mistaken the tramp for a rich man. Interspersed with this main story is the tramp befriending a suicidal businessman who is viciously mean when sober, but warm and human when drunk.

The long, arduous production of CITY LIGHTS solidified Chaplin’s reputation as a perfectionist. It was shot over a two-year period from 1929 to early 1931, the beginning stages of The Great Depression. The key plot point in the film, in which the flower girl mistakes the tramp for a rich man, was filmed on and off for six months, with Chaplin having no idea of how this point would occur. As the disc’s supplements, and Kevin Brownlow’s excellent documentary UNKNOWN CHAPLIN show, the scene required over 300 takes until Chaplin got the idea for how the scene would occur.

By the time CITY LIGHTS was released, it had been over three years since the introduction of movies with synchronized sound. Although CITY LIGHTS has sync sound, there is no (discernible) dialogue, only music and very intermittent sound effects. The opening scene even pokes fun at the compromised quality of early sync sound by having Chaplin dub over a dialogue scene while speaking through a kazoo.

According to the film’s audio commentary, there are only 98 intertitles and credit titles throughout the entire 86-minute film, and Chaplin was obsessed with keeping the story as simple and tightly-paced as possible, to make it palatable for an audience that had suddenly become accustomed to dialogue that could be heard. The result is an astonishingly well-paced and scripted piece that holds up extremely well.

The film’s new high definition transfer is sourced from a 4K scan, and it does indeed boast an enormous amount of detail. Thankfully, the film is presented in its proper aspect ratio of 1.19:1, after years of transfers that cropped the top and bottom of the frame to fit a 4:3 ratio. One big point of contention among purists before this Blu-Ray release was whether the wires would be visible in the boxing sequence. Chaplin shot the sequence so that they would be completely invisible on-screen, but because of the differing nature of digital scanning to say, a telecine transfer, the wires were plainly visible in many parts of the boxing match sequence. Criterion has made the choice to keep the wires in, presumably because removing them would seem like an unnecessary alteration.

The disc’s supplements include much of the material that was included on MK2’s 2003 DVD (released in the US by Warner Home Video), with a few well-produced new pieces by Criterion. As with the MODERN TIMES Blu-Ray, this disc contains a fantastic look at Chaplin’s subtle visual effects work, most notably the use of perspective miniatures. Although its been shown in many documentaries on Chaplin, and on several other DVDs, the footage of Chaplin rehearsing the storefront window scene is quite a treat.

An audio commentary by Jeffery Vance offers some nice production insights, but spends a little too much time narrating the film. The only real caveat of this release is the lack of Carl Davis’ 1989 rescoring of the film, which was included on Image Entertainment’s DVD, and the laserdisc by Fox Video.

Criterion’s version is a must-buy even if you have the film already. It is by far the best the film has ever looked on home video, and offers some great insights into its production.

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