City Lights: The Chaplin Collection
MK2 / Warner Home Video
Starring Charles Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Harry Myers, Hank Mann
Written by Charles Chaplin, Albert Austin, Harry Crocker
Directed by Charles Chaplin
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Review by Mark Bourne
Right off the bat, we can count five reasons why City Lights is one of the Great Movies and the summit of Mount Chaplin:
- In this funny, humane love story of the gentleman Tramp giving his all for the sake of a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill), Chaplin achieved a pitch-perfect balance of comedy and warm-heartedness. Its pathos isn't as thick as a bucket of warm caramel (see The Kid) and its comic moments exhibit a range from broad slapstick to the most delicate bodily motions that shows us why Chaplin remains unequaled.
- City Lights is one of the few features where Chaplin crafted a well-structured story instead of a chain of superficially related (albeit brilliantly executed) comic incidents. As ambitious and successful as they are, The Gold Rush has a piecemeal feel and Modern Times is about as modular as a stack of Lego blocks.
- City Lights is what they mean when they talk about that 1000:1 words/picture ratio. Although released in 1931, four years after The Jazz Singer kicked down the door for sound films, City Lights is still considered the last great film of the silent era. Chaplin wisely chose to not let the audience hear the Tramp speak, which would have destroyed the character's delicate universality and Everyman quality. But he didn't eschew sound altogether. Instead, he insisted that the film would contain no spoken dialogue yet possess its own synchronized soundtrack built from a musical score (his first) and strategically deployed sound effects. The result is an ingenious mélange of expressionistic sounds used for satiric and farcical effect.
- With its tightly packaged moments of melodrama, Chaplin's physical athleticism and grace, preternaturally expressive pantomime, honestly achieved sentiment, humorous ribbing at social elites, and sheer compassionate humanity, City Lights by itself could stand as a full Chaplin sampler. And if we ever shoot a time capsule into space to represent who we as a civilization were in the 20th Century, you can make a good case for including City Lights as an example of our better side.
- That final scene. If it doesn't move you, you're beyond human reach.
The MK2/Warner Home Video Chaplin Collection DVD
How's the picture and sound quality?
Disc One of this two-disc release presents City Lights (1:22:36) in a pleasing but not jawdropping restoration. Even when we allow for some expected "softness," neither the source master nor its clean-up quite reach the exquisite quality of MK2's The Gold Rush, Modern Times, or The Kid. The black-and-white imagery is smooth, well-defined, and displays nicely balanced grayscale. But the print still bears a few minor hairline scratches and lacks the gloss of MK2's best restorations. All the same, this welcome new edition of City Lights holds its own alongside the superb work on view throughout The Chaplin Collection.
For this release, Chaplin's soundtrack, cleaned and fresh like new, comes in two Dolby Digital remastered options the original monaural (DD 2.0) and a new 5.1 remix. Each offers a track that's full-bodied, clear, and free of hiss or wear. The 5.1 option is only nominally 5.1, keeping itself center-front with the satellite speakers only lightly widening the sound without directional gimmicks.
Subtitles are in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Thai, and Korean.
Disc Two: Special features
Introduction (5:24) Biographer David Robinson (Chaplin: His Life and Art) gives a fine bird's-eye overview of City Lights' lengthy production history (two years, eight months), on Chaplin's decision to keep the Tramp silent while the rest of Hollywood was leaping into the sound revolution, and the film's triumphant critical acclaim. Chaplin loved to be associated with the world-class smart set, so there he is at the L.A. premiere with Albert Einstein and the London opening with George Bernard Shaw.
Chaplin Today - City Lights (26:45) Covering this "story of love and hope between two lost souls" is a documentary by Serge Bromberg (The Best Arbuckle/Keaton Collection, The Lost World). It isn't deep but it is lively and refrains from the forced analysis that blunts several of its counterparts in The Chaplin Collection. This time we get animator Peter Lord, who with Nick Park gave us Wallace & Gromit and Chicken Run. During his enthusiastic breakdown of City Lights' "one gem after another," Lord points to Chaplin as both an ideal animated figure and a master animator in full control of his art.
Outtake (7:06) Chaplin deleted this exquisite scene because it didn't contribute to the structure of City Lights. On its own, however, it's a fine record of Chaplin's ability to mine humor from the simplest of opportunities, as the Tramp tries with single-minded determination to dislodge a piece of wood from a street grate. The window-dresser is played by Harry Crocker, who became a loyal assistant to Chaplin after playing the tightrope walker in The Circus. Crocker also shares screenwriting credit for City Lights.
- Shooting (8:01) Chaplin's relentless perfectionism usually paid off, but it was rarely easy. For the scene where the Tramp meets the flower girl, he shot more than 300 takes driven by "a neurotic state of wanting perfection," as he later described it in his autobiography. Thanks to Chaplin's friend, artist/cartoonist Ralph Barton, who had brought his 16mm camera to the set, we have this footage of the director working on the scene. Captured is a moment of fierce anger as Chaplin launches himself at an assistant apparently responsible for the extras.
- Georgia Hale screen test (6:30) Almost a year into shooting City Lights, Chaplin found Virginia Cherrill so exasperating that he impulsively fired the 20-year-old newcomer (who later became Cary Grant's first ex-wife). He considered giving the flower girl to his female lead from The Gold Rush, Georgia Hale. But City Lights was too far into production and Chaplin rehired Cherrill, the best decision he could have made even if he gnashed his teeth while doing so (and she took full financial advantage of having him over a barrel). Here's footage of Chaplin in his Tramp garb working with Hale on the final scene.
- The dream prince (1:09) One of Chaplin's early plans for City Lights involved opening with a dream scene in which the Tramp visualizes himself as a prince, resplendent in a white uniform, who wins the adoration of a princess. This footage is all that remains of the idea. (The DVD box for this release erroneously states that this sequence depicts "how the flower girl imagines her benefactor.")
- Rehearsal (1:25) Chaplin, out of costume, works the bit where the Tramp appraises the nude statue in the shop window.
- Chaplin and boxing stars (4:26) In City Lights the Tramp tries to earn money for an operation to restore the flower girl's sight by signing up for a boxing match. This footage, shot outdoors on the grounds of Chaplin Studios, records two bruisers giving Chaplin some pointers in landing a punch. Rather, everyone's having a fun time goofing around, with the boxers enjoying being on camera and Chaplin rehearsing the Tramp's slapstick moves in the ring.
- Winston Churchill's visit (1:58) The star gives Britain's future prime minister a tour of the studio, gamboling for the camera while Churchill looks uncomfortable and wooden.
- Chaplin speaks! (3:29) Arriving in Vienna in 1931, this German-language footage sees Chaplin being greeted by the sort of throng that the Beatles will experience 33 years later. The audio is tinny and raspy, but we get to hear Chaplin's first recorded words into a microphone: "Guten tag!" As revealed on MK2's DVD of The Great Dictator, these adoring crowds prompted the Nazis to smear Chaplin with anti-Semitic rhetoric.
- Trip to Bali (9:57) Immediately after City Lights premiered, Chaplin and an entourage embarked on a world tour that was one part promotional, one part get-away-from-it-all. Here we have silent home movies of Charles and Sydney Chaplin visiting the villages and jungles of Bali in '32. Footage of the locals is punctuated by the two brothers looking like Hail Britannia caricatures in their pith helmets.
- The Champion (1915) - Excerpts (9:30) This segment from one of Chaplin's Essanay studio two-reelers showcases the Tramp entering the prizefight ring 16 years before City Lights.
Trailers (8:23) The U.S., French, and German reissue trailers
Photo Gallery Six silent video slide-shows deliver production photos categorized by topic: Statue and Elephant, Flowers, Cane in the grating, Miscellaneous, The singing Chaplin, and Italia 1954 (City Lights promotion in Italy with sidewalk sandwich-board ads and a statue of the Tramp).
Film Posters A click-through collection of 26 posters for City Lights from various countries spanning the 1930s - 70s.
The Chaplin Collection (10:42) This video montage presents scenes from all the films in The Chaplin Collection. It's a nice touch that they're arranged in chronological order of their original theatrical runs.
About The Chaplin Collection
In 2001, the rights to many of Chaplin's films became available. Several companies vied to license them. The Chaplin estate chose the Parisian company MK2, which holds the rights to the films for 12 years.
With distribution through Warner Home Video, in 2003 MK2 began releasing The Chaplin Collection, two boxed sets containing definitive, authorized editions of Chaplin's feature-length films. Each film receives an exhaustive, features-rich DVD presentation. All have been digitally restored and remastered from Chaplin estate vault elements. Volume 1 of The Chaplin Collection includes The Gold Rush, Modern Times, The Great Dictator, and Limelight. Volume 2 brings us City Lights, The Kid, The Circus, A King in New York / A Woman of Paris, Monsieur Verdoux, and The Chaplin Revue. Plus, exclusive to the Volume 2 boxed set is Richard Schickel's acclaimed documentary tribute, Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin, a highlight of 2003's Cannes Film Festival.
These discs feature, among their many extras, never-before-seen footage, behind-the-scenes glimpses, exclusive family home movie footage, and specially made documentaries in which Chaplin biographer David Robinson as well as world-famous film-makers discuss the films and their personal, professional, or cultural impact.
Starting in the 1940s, Chaplin went back to several of his earlier films and tinkered with them, snipping bits here, changing footage there, and adding his own musical scores for reissue prints. Under the authority of the Chaplin estate, MK2's The Chaplin Collection delivers the films in their final state, "as Chaplin intended."Mark Bourne
- Black and white with some supplements in color
- Original 1.33:1 full-frame
- Two single-sided, single-layered discs (SS-SL)
- DD 2.0 monaural, DD 5.1
- Subtitles in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Thai, and Korean
- Introduction by Chaplin biographer David Robinson
- Documentary Chaplin Today - City Lights
- The dream prince
- Chaplin and boxing stars
- Winston Churchill's visit
- Chaplin speaks!
- Trip to Bali
- The Champion (1915) - Excerpts
- Photo Gallery
- Film Posters
- Scenes from films in The Chaplin Collection
- Dual-DVD trifold case in paperboard sleeve
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