Charlie Chaplin was in pre-production on City Lights in 1927, when Warner Brothers shook the movie industry to its core with the introduction of recorded dialog in a feature-length film, The Jazz Singer. Chaplin was contemptuous of sound, saying that he would proceed with City Lights as a non-talking film, (although with recorded music and sound effects), and that by the time it was released "talkies" would have run their course and disappeared. Chaplin had absolute control over the production of his films, as actor, writer, music composer, director, and producer. He owed nothing to the bank, and took orders from no studio. He lavished time and money on the film, with the scene in which Chaplin's tramp first meets the blind flower girl requiring 342 takes over the course of more than a year before he was satisfied. Three years in production saw the completion of Chaplin's ultimate silent film, but meanwhile sound films had solidified their dominance, and movies had changed forever.
Of all the pantheon of silent comedy stars, only Chaplin could have succeeded in releasing a silent film four years into the sound era, but even he was apprehensive. Chaplin confided to Samuel Goldwyn that if City Lights proved to be a box office flop, he was ruined. Released in 1931, in its opening scene City Lights even made a mocking reference to talking films. The dignitaries unveiling a sculpture tableaux entitled "Peace and Prosperity" speak through a kazoo, with Chaplin performing the voices. In this same scene Chaplin uses the hand of a male figure in the tableaux to thumb his nose at society in general and the "talkies" in particular. This gesture, as well as Chaplin's demure contemplation of a nude statue in a store window, likely would not have gotten past the Hays Office censors only a few years later.
The tramp's infatuation with the flower girl, and his efforts to raise enough money to restore her sight, occupy the remainder of the film, every minute displaying Chaplin's cinematic skills at their finest. City Lights was a resounding hit, ending the silent era with an exclamation point. Mixing precisely choreographed slapstick comedy with heartfelt pity, it juxtaposed laughter and tears in a risky combination that few films would even attempt. The final scene in front of the flower shop is a classic, particularly the last two close-up shots, one of the flower girl who can now see her benefactor whom she had mistakenly assumed to be a wealthy man, then a fade-out of the delighted but embarrassed tramp. One of the most poignant closing scenes in the history of film, it had many patrons leaving the theater in tears, reportedly causing people waiting in line for the next performance to ask "what kind of comedy is this?"
City Lights is the latest in Criterion's series of Chaplin films, and they have done themselves proud. The Criterion release contains a Blu-ray and a DVD disc, and both feature the film and a complete set of extras. Special features include two documentaries on the making of the film, archival footage from the production, trailers, an audio commentary with the film, an extensive booklet with an essay by film critic Gary Giddins and a 1966 interview with Charlie Chaplin. The best films to introduce a first-time viewer to the artistry of Charlie Chaplin are probably The Gold Rush (1925) and City Lights. Twenty and more years after their release, Chaplin cited first one, then the other, as his personal favorite of all his films. Watching them today, in beautifully restored versions, it is easy to see why he would be conflicted as to which was his favorite. Both are superb, and not to be missed.