City Lights

City Lights (1931)
Image Entertainment
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Florence Lee, Harry Myers
Extras: Interview with musical director, Story Notes, Publicity items, Production Data

No matter how much time will pass, Charlie Chaplin will forever stand out in movie history as one of the most proficient comedians of all times. A multi-talent who was able to cover all aspects of filmmaking, Chaplin had managed to capture audiences’ hearts and imaginations, and the fascination his work emanates is unbroken, even after almost 100 years since his work in the film industry started. "City Lights" was a very challenging movie for Chaplin, as it posed a few problems he had to overcome somehow. The most important question was how to tackle the fact that "talkies" were the latest trend. No other film before or after caused Chaplin so much headache to decide whether the lovable Tramp should talk or not. After mulling the idea over for some time, he decided to create a movie that uses limited sound effects but no dialogues, as such creating an amalgam of both worlds. The aesthetics and highly music driven dramatic elements of the silent film era and the added emphasis the then-limited technology of sound offered, without breaking the capricious magic of his most famous character.

Charlie Chaplin had an uncanny eye for the funny but one of his most important traits were his skills of observation and social commentary. As the world around him changed and new problems arose with the heavy industrialization of the post-World-War-I world, Chaplin was a keen witness to this ongoing change and worked the discord into his many films. "City Lights" is filled with such social studies of the then-modern society and the impact it had on American citizens, and Chaplin was always trying to find a way to comment on the situation with a very humanitarian note, as well as a good wink at times. Routinely he mocked the bourgeoisie with slapstick comedy and made the lower class people the real stars of his films, thus closing the broadening gap between the rich and the impoverished.

In "City Lights" Charlie Chaplin once again plays the Tramp, the part that made him immortal. Without means he lives a simple life when one day he meets a blind flower girl and falls in love with her when he buys one of her flowers. The girl mistakes him for a rich man when she hears the door of an expensive car slam just as he approaches and is impressed with the rich man’s friendliness towards her. In thoughts of the beautiful girl, the Tramp moves on and sits down by the river, when he witnesses a man trying to drown himself. He rescues the drunkard and talks to him, eventually convincing him that life is worth living, ultimately changing his mind. Out of gratitude for his newfound friend, the man takes the Tramp home. There he wines his guest and the Tramp finds out that his friend is a very rich man, who even gives him his car for a present. The party all night and the next morning the Tramp takes the car to take his new ’girlfriend’ home. When he returns to the rich man’s estate however, the man has sobered up and forgot everything about the previous night, including his new best friend. But hours – and a number of Brandies – later, the rich man remembers the Tramp and once again, the two party all night.
In the meanwhile the blind girl falls sick and unable to pay her rent, she is about to be evicted form her small apartment. Of course, the Tramp tries to help and takes on a job to get the necessary money, but things go terribly wrong from there.

The concept of the rich man (ab)using the poor man as he pleases, the whole parable of the poor man being mistaken as a rich man, and the heartfelt human aspects of the Tramp helping the girl to get her eyesight back, are only few of the elements that make "City Lights" an incredible and timeless experience. Even in a time where silent movies are a bit of an oddity, "City Lights" tells more without words than most of today’s films do with.

Image Entertainment has prepared "City Lights" for release on this DVD and within seconds it becomes evident that this is the best the movie has ever looked. Although there are some reels in the film that exhibit signs of age and wear, for the most part, the picture is remarkably stable and without major defects. Especially the opening 10 minutes of the movie are simply staggering in their clarity.

The presentation on this DVD has great contrast that restores the movie’s images meticulously. Given the movie’s considerable age, there are some slight inconsistencies but for the most part, the film has deep solid blacks and well-balanced highlights. It never has the overexposed and harsh look of aged and faded prints, and always maintains a great balance. The grayscale is perfectly maintained, reproducing even the slightest gradients in the picture. The picture is correctly framed at an aspect ratio that is approximately 1.28:1 without any visible distortion. The compression on the disc is absolutely flawless and not a hint of artifacting is evident in the presentation. Image’s decision to release "City Lights" on a <$RSDL,dual-layer> disc has certainly helped to allow for the highest possible bitrate, which clearly pays off in this beautiful presentation.

"City Lights" contains two audio tracks. First there is the original monaural audio track from 1931. It is a score that Chaplin wrote and recorded himself and one that is very elaborately matched with the pictures we see on the screen. Due to the age of the track, noise, pops and other deficiencies are noticeable in the track. The other track contains a completely re-recorded version of the same track and it will give you the chance to re-experience "City Lights" like you have never seen it before. Composer Carl Davis created an almost identical re-recording of the original score in 1989 as part of Chaplin’s 100th birthday celebration. Leaving practically all nuances and subtleties intact, the score is nicely performed and recorded and adds a new, and exciting dimension to the entire movie.
Presented as a stereo <$PCM,PCM> audio track, the score has a very natural frequency response and creates a sonic space that shows what Chaplin had in mind when he first created the movie. Due to the technical limitations of audio recording and presentation at the time, the original sound always had a scratchy and thin quality of course. With the newly recorded score it suddenly becomes obvious how well Chaplin married the images on the screen with the most subtle nuances in the music.

The disc also contains an interview with Carl Davis where he elaborates on the work that went into re-recording the original score. For scholars of film composing it is a highly informative and entertaining piece that once again underscores what a perfectionist Chaplin’s really was. Original story notes, a gallery of publicity materials and insight into the budget data of "City Lights" can also be found on this disc.

Image Entertainment has long been carrying the torch for silent films and classic movies but with "City Lights" they have outdone themselves. As an admirer of Chaplin’s work, I am speechless about his presentation, as I would have never imagined that I would see "City Lights" with such clarity, definition and dimension. The rejuvenated score and the restored film material make "City Lights" an unforgettable movie experience. I can’t recommend this release enough!