What is the best Charlie Chaplin film? Impossible to say. The triumvirate, I suppose, are "The Gold Rush," "City Lights" and "Modern Times." My favorite — and, it is said, Chaplin's favorite — is the 1931 "City Lights" [Criterion]. Stubbornly refusing to switch to talking pictures, the director incorporated sound — effects, music, and mumbo jumbo — into the proceedings. Being naturally innovative, everything he did was skillful and effective.
"City Lights" is a tale of the Tramp character in the modern Metropolis. But this is not the carefree Tramp of the earlier films; he stumbles across a blind flower girl who gives him purpose in life. The scenes with the girl, Virginia Cherrill — Chaplin underwent an enormous struggle to get what turned out to be a perfect performance out of her — range from comedy to slapstick to pathos to tenderness. The final sequence, in which the now-seeing girl realizes that her benefactor is not some dreamed-of millionaire but poor Charlie, remains one of the most emotionally satisfying moments in the world cinema. Cherrill wasn't much of an actress, but "City Lights" is a perfect role for her. Her second-biggest claim to fame: She was the first of the five Mrs. Cary Grants, for seven months anyway.
The comic centerpiece of the film remains the boxing match, a marvel of movement and choreography. Charlie, matched against a mountain of a man (Hank Mann), somehow manages to keep the referee between them. Mostly, anyway. This is a sequence which you really can't watch just once. And speaking to Chaplin's use of sound in non-talking pictures, he uses the timekeeper's bell as a comic component of the bout.
We have been given clearer and clearer restorations of Chaplin films for some years now. This new digital restoration from Criterion almost makes "City Lights" look like it was filmed yesterday, in black and white. Well, not exactly; but under these circumstances, the faded and shaky look of 80-year-old films is just about absent. Many of the existing bonus features from prior releases are included, along with a new audio commentary by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance. The booklet includes an essay by Gary Giddins, along with Chaplin's own comments about the film from a 1967 article in Life Magazine. The Criterion Blu-ray comes in a dual-format edition; that is, they include a separate DVD so you can watch "City Lights" anywhere!
From Chaplin to Welles. There actually was a connection between the pair of genius actor/directors. Orson Welles came up with a screenplay in 1944 about a modern-day Bluebeard who marries wealthy widows and kills them off, based on the infamous Henri Landru (who murdered ten women during World War I). Chaplin considered the project but turned it down — he apparently couldn't see himself taking direction from anyone, even Welles — but within a few years wrote, directed and starred in his own "Monsieur Verdoux" in 1947. (Welles received credit, and payment, for the idea.) Instead of the Landru movie, Welles made "The Stranger" [Kino] in 1946 — and if you listen closely, you will hear a rueful line about Landru.
"The Stranger" was Welles' third film, following the classic "Citizen Kane" and the fascinating but artistically-compromised "The Magnificent Ambersons." "The Stranger" is wonderful film noir, similar in tone and suspense to Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt"; it is also, we are told, the only Welles film to make a profit on its original release.
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