By the end of the 1920s, Charles “Charlie” Chaplin was, without challenge, the biggest movie star in the world — possibly even the most famous person in the world. He had been writing and directing all his vehicles for a decade and a half.
He was fabulously wealthy and owned his own studio, with a full salaried staff, just to make his own films. His most recent release, “The Circus,” was another commercial and critical hit. He was, in short, the King of Silent Movies.
There was just one hitch: three months to the day before the premiere of “The Circus” was the premiere of “The Jazz Singer,” and the art of silent movies was predicted to be abandoned within several years. Chaplin was perhaps the only star in Hollywood who could dare to plan a new silent, and, luckily, he had the material wherewithal to do so.
Making the commercial prospects even iffier, it took him more than two years to finish that film, “City Lights,” which thus didn’t open until 1931, by which time the prophecies of the naysayers had proved too cautious: Silent cinema was already a fading memory.
Chaplin’s name would have been enough to tempt audiences; but the product was more than enough to satisfy them, drawing laughter and tears, sometimes at once. “City Lights” (now out on a new DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion) was — by many standards, including his own — the greatest movie he had yet made.
There’s nothing new that can be said about it, so we’ll say something old and worn: Its last few moments are among the most brilliant (and risky) endings in film history. It seems likely to have inspired Woody Allen’s similarly greatest final scene — in “Manhattan.”
It’s also nothing new to observe that the new disc is yet another confirmation that hi-def is not only for widescreen, CGI-laden action films. Its visual qualities — including, but not limited to, its superior resolution — make “City Lights” look exceptionally fresh. The audio — Chaplin had bowed slightly to convention by adding some crucial sound effects and a musical score (mostly, though not entirely, self-composed) — is less successful because of limitations in the original recording.
The supplemental material is a mixed bag. Scholar Jeffrey Vance provides an informative wall-to-wall commentary. Unfortunately he appears to be reading a prepared script, so there’s no looseness or spontaneity; it reminds us why most commentary tracks are not solo.
There are other extras: “Chaplin Today” is a half-hour interview with Peter Lord, co-founder of Aardman Animation and co-director of “Chicken Run,” analyzing Chaplin’s style. In the 16-minute “Chaplin Studios: Creative Freedom by Design,” visual effects expert Craig Barron genially talks about Chaplin’s studio.
Source material includes “From the Set of City Lights,” four home movie sequences (about 20 minutes total) taken on the set, showing Chaplin at work; a 10-minute boxing scene from his 1915 short “The Champion”; and an amusing five-minute clip in which he fights with boxers who were visiting the studio.
For once, even the trailers are worth watching, particularly for the foreign releases “Les Lumieres de la Ville” and “Lichter der Grossstadt.”
“City Lights” Criterion, Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, $39.95--
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).