Made in 1931 shortly after the introduction of the talkies, Charlie Chaplin's City Lights
is nonetheless near-silent. Chaplin was afraid that, should his universally known and beloved Tramp speak onscreen, he would be severely limited and compromised as a character. And so, City Lights
is billed as "pantomime", a piece of cinema harking back to the manners and methods of an already defunct era.
Chaplin fell out of fashion towards the end of the 20th century as a new wave of comedians (Rowan Atkinson for one) castigated him for what they saw as his excessive, maudlin sentimentality. Certainly, City Lights--which sees Chaplin's Tramp befriended by a blind flower girl who mistakes him for a rich benefactor--is hokum indeed. Accepting this, however, what makes the film so marvellous is the deceptive skill and artistry of Chaplin the filmmaker, the immaculate timing and acrobatic grace of his seemingly slapstick comedy, in particular a justly famous boxing sequence. Chaplin's sparing use of sound is inventive also: the wordless waffle of public speakers in the opening scene and another in which the tramp swallows a whistle. Moreover, the conclusion, in which the dishevelled Tramp encounters again the flower girl, her eyesight restored is--sentimentality notwithstanding--one of the most moving and superbly executed scenes in cinema history, not least for its economy and restraint.
On the DVD: City Lights contains a generous package of extras on this two-disc set, including an introduction by David Robinson, in which he relates how poorly Chaplin and his leading lady Virginia Cherrill got on, an extended documentary/interview with Peter Lord (partner in animation to Nick Parks), who sings the praises of Chaplin's screen art, and a deleted scene, an immaculate piece of business involving a grate and a stick. There's a bonus in the form of an excerpt from 1915's The Champion, in which Chaplin prefigures the boxing scene from City Lights. Meanwhile, the "documents" section includes a wealth of behind-the-scenes footage, including a test screening for alternative actress Georgia Hale, rehearsal shots, chaotic scenes of Chaplin being mobbed in Vienna, a meeting with Winston Churchill and 1918 footage of Chaplin horsing around with famous boxers of the day including Benny Leonard. It also contains trailers, photo gallery and subtitles. On the first disc, the film's transfer to DVD is splendid. --David Stubbs