Film

Charlie Chaplin Created Beauty through Understatement

In City Lights, Chaplin introduced parody and satire to a moment that was supremely serious, and we owe him more than we realize for the saving power of modern irony.


City Lights

Director: Charles Chaplin
Cast: Charles Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill
Distributor: Criterion
Release date: 2013-11-12

The final moments of City Lights are a beautiful impossibility. Impossible not simply in how the scene works, but that it works at all. Describe it to someone who hasn’t experienced those last few minutes and it sounds like sentimental nonsense. A fey tramp, a blind flower girl. A literal description comes across as a badly conceived metaphor in a not-very-good love letter. And yet, its one of the most important moments in cinematic history.

Charlie Chaplin’s greatest moments are always like this. He created beauty through understatement. This low-key and eccentric humor emerged in part from the fact that he tied his comedy to the least funny elements of modern life. His films managed not only to whistle past graveyards but also to pantomime past the soulless dead zones of factories, class oppression, and even the horrors of fascism.

The new Criterion Blu-ray release of his classic, City Lights, not only reminds us of this, it celebrates the power and simplicity of his work. The supplementary materials make it clear that, as we’ve always known, Chaplin represents the archetypal auteur. They also remind us that he had a lot of help.

The supplementary materials for this release shatter an oft-repeated myth about City Lights. In many anecdotal stories about its production, Virginia Cherrill comes across as the starlet who didn’t care, the ingénue that Chaplin considered firing because she skipped a filming to keep a hair appointment. Audio commentary and other special features put this story to rest. The hair appointment story has some truth to it. But the emotional power of the film remains unimaginable without her.

City Lights also offers us the fullest flowering of Chaplin’s signature character, “the Tramp”. His trademark avatar had undergone a thorough transformation since he first portrayed a version of the Tramp for the Keystone comedy shorts. That early version of the Tramp, somewhat shocking to us today, often appeared as an irascible and feckless drunk with a mean streak.

By the time Chaplin made City Lights, he had transformed the character into a lovable rapscallion, gentle and uncertain and capturing something irreducible about human experience. He remained rather feckless, falling helplessly into the difficulties and terrors of the 20th century. This made us love him more.

In fact, the “other” most famous scene in City Lights has the Tramp ruining a moment of civic pride and not being really very clear why he’s ruining it. Not only did Chaplin create humor and pathos through simplicity, he became the mouthpiece of everyone ever confused by the modern world and its obsessions. He introduced parody and satire to a moment that was supremely serious and we owe him more than we realize for the saving power of modern irony.

Criterion has packed in some new materials with this release, including a wonderful audio commentary with Jeffrey Vance, the author of one of the more celebrated studies of Chaplin’s career. Vance knows both the technical story and can talk to us about the kind of film stock Chaplin’s preferred. But he also shares anecdotes about Gene Harlow appearing (sort of) as an extra in City Lights well-known dance hall sequence. The commentary never becomes dry and it made me want to read Vance’s apparently wonderful book.

Supplementary materials also include a 27-minute documentary about the making of the film first produced in 2003. It’s excellent and does a good job placing it in both the historical context of America’s Great Depression (a world with plenty of tramps) and in relation to Chaplin’s larger career. In another short featurette, visual effects expert Craig Barron explores the cinematic effects created by Chaplin studios, the backlot of which was quite tiny in comparison to some of the outsized cityscapes we see in City Lights.

Criterion generally includes a booklet with some excellent film essays. This release is no exception. It contains a long-ish essay by Gary Giddins that explores how Chaplin managed to combine, in his words. “burlesque comedy and dreadful pathos” and pulled it off without sentimentality because “a cosmic banana peel” always brings his films back to earth. In a day when we are used to romantic comedies that succeed in making us hate the very notion of romance, City Lights turned existential trauma into comedy, and then back into the darkness again.

The booklet also contains a revelatory 1967 essay on the film by Richard Meryman. It’s a hilarious piece, with ruminations on Brando trying to be funny and what that would be like as well as Brando not trying to be funny, and succeeding. Meryman’s reflections on the meaning and power of comedy capture the essence of the Tramp. He has no money. He’s knows it. He’s defenseless and basically scared. We don’t laugh at him. We laugh with him at all the things we are supposed to value.

The Blu-ray transfer is amazing, a 4k resolution born out of a 35mm duplicate negative and a 24-bit remastered soundtrack. The title cards have a gorgeous look and texture, and some of the crowd scenes that appeared fuzzy in previous transfers are now perfectly defined.

You’ll be stunned by the clean-up work done here. But its not the quality of the transfer that will capture you. The Tramp, and the not-so-half-hearted worked of Virginia Cherrill, perfectly embody the saddest and best of ourselves, and transforms sentiment into a look into the very heart of love and hope.

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