My three-year-old nephew has recently become obsessed with Spider-man, so much that he is now rarely seen without his own costume and mask. My sister-in-law has been adamant about which version of the comic book super-hero her young son is permitted to watch, with only a classic 80s cartoon being non-violent enough for his malleable mind. We are careful about how we expose children to ideas, whether in setting examples as role models or by giving them proper ones for heroes. Not that my nephew is likely to have spider-like abilities in the future, but if he did I am certain that he would choose to wrap bad guys in web rather than harm them.
But how can I be certain that our entertainment can even have that kind of effect on behavior and character? The answer to that question lies in City Lights; a comedic romance in pantomime by Charles Chaplin, made years after silent films had become a thing of the past. City Lights may not be Chaplin’s best film, and it is far from his funniest, but I have it listed as my favorite because of the last five minutes of the film. Even with nearly two decades passing between viewings, I still had those final images burned into my brain. I loved Chaplin as a child. He was my hero, and those final five minutes taught me how to love. Within the deepest fibers of my soul is a tattered bowler hat in search of a rose to be plucked from the gutter.
City Lights is a film about true love without any hesitation or reservation, completely selfless and wholly pure in intentions. When a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) mistakenly assumes the Little Tramp to be a wealthy gentleman, he does all that he can to continue this illusion in her mind. Unable to see him, all that matter is his ability to provide a nominal amount of money when visiting her. This becomes more difficult when an eviction notice makes a larger sum of money necessary to protect his new love, and the Little Tramp sets out on a series of desperate attempts at earning money.
Among these sequences is the film’s funniest bit, in which our Tramp attempts a boxing match for the prize money. For more Chaplin boxing, excerpts from the 1915 short film, The Champion, are included in the special features. City Lights is also filled with the hijinks that the Tramp gets into with an unlikely friendship made with a drunken millionaire who repeatedly dismisses him upon sobering and welcomes him once inebriated again. The entire film has sequences of the Tramp being lifted up slightly, only to lose that footing as quickly as it came. He takes his own misfortune with the cheery optimism we are accustomed to seeing from the Tramp, with the exception of that final sequence.
Everything which occurs in City Lights is leading up to those last couple of minutes. We see the Tramp as we have never seen him before, dejected and worn down in a way that is heartbreaking. And then he sees the blind flower girl, now able to see due to his selfless actions. The looks of joy, embarrassment and love in Chaplin’s face during those final minutes of City Lights may be the single greatest moments of cinematic acting recorded in the 80-some years since it was created. While reviewing this much-anticipated Blu-ray release from Criterion, I watched the ending twice. Both times it made me cry. Even the mere thought of those images, engrained in my brain and etched in my heart, brings me to tears as I put these words to page. The Little Tramp taught me to love, I have loved City Lights ever since that first lesson, and it continues to teach me with each viewing.
The Blu-ray release is a dual-format, which just means that it comes with a DVD as well as the high definition disc. All of the content is available on both discs, with a new digital restoration from a 4K film transfer, with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. The special features are fittingly impressive, with astonishing behind-the-scenes footage of the set, a dress rehearsal and even a completed sequence which was cut from the film. There are also many retrospectives on the film’s quality, from a 2003 documentary to Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance’s all-new audio commentary. The commentary is clearly an essay being read aloud during the run-time of the film, which is a bit dry despite being filled with wonderful insight. The package also comes with a booklet featuring an essay by critic Gary Giddins and a 1966 interview with Chaplin.
Entertainment Value: 10/10
Quality of Filmmaking: 10/10
Historical Significance: 10/10
Disc Features: 10/10