The Criterion Collection has returned to the well again this month. They are releasing the fifth film in their Charlie Chaplin series. I've shared my thoughts on Modern Times, The Great Dictator and The Gold Rush in previous reviews. By not releasing the films in chronological order, the exposure to the arc of his career is very disjointed. We've seen the mature Chaplin films including talkies and the final evolution of his Tramp character. Only one has given us a glimpse into the early years of the character - The Gold Rush (1925). I thought it was time to explore the early film appearances of the Tramp like The Kid (1921) or The Circus (1928). The release we get is the well received and slightly defiant film City Lights from 1931.
I've approached these releases with a modern eye. It's too hard to view these films as they were viewed by their contemporary audiences. The viewer in 1931 was two years into the Talkie Era. There was an expectation that this would be the first Chaplin to feature his voice. The first scene shows him thumbing his nose at the new development in film. The Tramp wakes up in the park during the unveiling of a new statue. This scene features a saxophone in place of the voices of the mayor at the ceremony. The rude, shrill sounds are a symbolic middle finger to the talkie medium. The rest of the film will play out as a traditional silent film. The Tramp is the character that audiences already were in love with. But thematically, there are plot points at work that Chaplin had yet to explore.
The theme of the title and main plot is that of blindness. It's not just the actual blindness of the Flower Girl that the Tramp falls in love with, but it's the blindness that exists everywhere in society. The title refers to the blindness that comes from the actual lights of the city and from the promise of fame and fortune in the city. The Tramp falls in love with the Flower Girl, not realizing that she's blind initially. By the time he does, she has mistaken him for a rich man who happens by. The Tramp develops a complicated relationship with a Millionaire. The Millionaire is blinded by his drinking and doesn't recognize The Tramp when he's sober. There is the blindness of the boxing match portrayed through the substitution of one boxer for another. The last blindness comes from the police not recognizing who really stole the money from The Millionaire.
The film becomes about curing the blindness, overcoming the City Lights. The fight is at first literally a boxing match to earn the money to help the Flower Girl recover her sight. His relentlessness leads him through multiple challenges but he does not give up. The Tramp risks jail time to take the money The Flower Girl needs that was given to him by The Millionaire. He gives her the money in a very bittersweet moment, knowing that he won't be there to see the results of his work.
The theme resounds for current audiences. The distractions of modern life over 80 years later have blinded us to what is right in front of our eyes. The themes of society not seeing people for who they really are hasn't changed much. The Tramp, The Millionaire, and The Flower Girl are slotted into certain stereotypical roles. But as we follow them, we see that there are things much deeper about each character. The Millionaire isn't happy because of his money - he is considering suicide when we meet him and he's drunk half of the movie. The Flower Girl isn't sad because of her lack of money or her blindness.
The most impressive development to the arc of The Tramp from previous films is that of him as a serious dramatic character also. Even in The Gold Rush, The Tramp had a love interest but he didn't stop being the comical character. Audiences expect him to thumb his nose at society and the rich. They expect him to be the tenacious smart aleck. What changes in City Lights is the mixture of drama and comedy in regards to The Tramp character and not just what happens around him.
Today, there's even a genre called "dramedy". The mixture of comedy and drama in a film is expected. The Chaplin films of the 1920s started as essentially extended jokes connected by set-ups for the next joke. The character was dramatic in his rebellion against the upper class. In City Lights The Tramp is in love. The movie is a love story of a man trying to overcome great odds to bring sight back to the Flower Girl. The comedic scenes don't overwhelm the quest to get money to solve the problem that will unite the lovers. This film was creating a genre as it went.
The Criterion Collection release is as amazing as all their other Chaplin releases. The package is a dual-format edition with both the Blu-ray and the DVD version of the film. There's an audio commentary by Jeffrey Vance, who wrote a definitive biography of Chaplin. There's some behind-the-scenes type of footage with commentary. A 2003 documentary about the film is very informative. There's a special on Chaplin Studios, trailers, a booklet essay, a 1966 interview, and footage from the marvelous short "The Champion".
The Criterion Collection of the major works of Chaplin are almost complete. We're a few movies from being able to trace the evolution of one of the most innovative and important figures in American film. The man that first taught us how to create a comedic scene and later how to string them together to create a coherent feature film deserves to be watched in order of release to get a feel for the improvements he made with each film. The City Lights lesson is that you don't need sound to prove that love conquers all. It doesn't take an operation to make Flower Girl really "see" the world. It takes a simple crushed flower. "You can see now?" the Tramp asks and her reply is simple "I can see now." And all is bright and lovely in the world.