Charlie Chaplin’s Battle With Sound
By the Great Depression, Charlie Chaplin stood at a figurative crossroads.
In 1931, his film City Lights was met with critical acclaim. Audiences flocked to theaters to watch another tale of one of film’s most popular characters: the Tramp. City Lights is a silent romantic-comedy, a Chaplin staple of his early career, and remains one of Chaplin’s most highly regarded films.
Despite the success, City Lights, at the time, was the film odd one out: it was a silent among the new world of sound — “talkies”. Chaplin could not fathom his films having speech. He believed his comedy would not translate to audiences via having characters talk; his comedy was steeped in physical humor.
The pressures of the modern age came to a boil by the time Chaplin released his next film. Silents were out of fashion; there had to be sound in films. Though regarded as one of the greatest silent film stars in history, Charlie Chaplin’s most important cinematic moments, ultimately, included dialogue and music.
Charlie Chaplin followed City Lights with 1936’s Modern Times. In my eyes, Modern Times is Chaplin’s masterpiece. The film includes one of the most important musical/speaking moments ever put to film. Four years later, 1940’s The Great Dictator would see Chaplin give one of the most astounding monologues film has ever seen.
Both films are among the greats. Yet, viewing each with the appreciation of the achievements behind the camera — from a guy who was late to the sound game — elevates both films to higher levels.
“Modern Times” — 1936
Charlie Chaplin did what everyone does when they run out of ideas: he took a break. Following City Lights, he did not know where his career was headed. He left the country for 16 months to ponder his future. He feared about becoming “old-fashioned” in a world where “talkies” became what audiences expected at the theater. Lonely and depressed, Chaplin returned to Los Angeles in despair. According to his auto-biography, he considered moving to China.
He met Paulette Goddard — an actress — when he returned, and the sadness immediately left his body. They began a relationship. On top of meeting Goddard, Chaplin grew more inclined to the politics of the day. The Great Depression ravaged on, leaving many poor and homeless. The mechanics in brain began whirling; an idea was hatched.
Modern Times is a classic. The film follows the story of Chaplin’s beloved Tramp, as he fights depression, poverty and loneliness. Goddard co-stars as the Tramp’s romantic interest. Originally, Chaplin planned for dialogue, but the plans were scrapped after rehearsing the film. Chaplin feared the comedy would become “lost” with dialogue, especially to foreign markets. (He was British). Chaplin made the film with the Great Depression in full focus. Modern Times, as Chaplin scripted and directed, did not put the blame of the Depression on corrupt politicians or greedy corporations; he blamed technology.
Sound effects are a large part of Modern Times. Chaplin’s view of this new modern world was that technology would soon dictate everyone’s lives. Machines will do everything; there will be no time for genuine human interactions — a thought that still scares some today. Voices are heard, but they come from speakers. The clangs and patters of moving machinery drown out any conversation. Chaplin considered sound effects part of the film’s score, though the underlying meaning of having machines “talk” rather than humans is clear. In 1936, technology was becoming much more powerful and influential — the world even colder.
Charlie Chaplin decided to add a little warmth.
The climax of Modern Times highlights the film and Chaplin’s brilliance. The Tramp is hired as a waiter and finds himself a performer at a restaurant. As he is about to perform, the Tramp’s cuffs — with the lyrics — fly off. He can not find them in time; he must perform without them. What follows is historic and revolutionary: the Tramp speaks.
The words are gibberish, but the message is clear: Chaplin does not need understood dialogue to make the audience understand the story and laugh. It is a moment where Chaplin proves he is right, while also giving-in to the current climate. The scene is hilarious and its humor stems from the gibberish speech and the dancing of Chaplin. Dialogue can be funny.
In 1931, Chaplin told an interviewer, “Dialogue, to my way of thinking, always slows action, because action must wait upon words.” Five years later, Chaplin disproved his own thinking — using dialogue effectively for laughs.
The Tramp was never seen on screen again. It was the silent star finally speaking out.
“The Great Dictator” — 1940
Modern Times was met with some acclaim, though many found the film too political. They had no idea what was coming.
Two years removed from Modern Times, Chaplin completed a script in secrecy. In 1940, he presented The Great Dictator to New York audiences. It would be his most successful film and his most decisive. The politics of the day — the rising tensions in Europe leading to World War II — influenced Chaplin to produce a satire about the affairs “across the pond”. The political and cultural nature of the film is fascinating and important, but Chaplin’s biggest risk was the end.
The film follows two identically looking people: Hynkel the Dictator and the Jewish barber. Each character belongs to a separate end of the morality spectrum. (Can you guess which belongs to which?) Their lives cross and both are switched — a case of mistaken identity. The end features the barber — who has never spoken to a large crowd before — in a position where he must make a speech. The parallel between character and actor elevates the scene to immortal ground.
The Great Dictator is the first time, Chaplin wrote, that the story is “bigger than the [Little] Tramp”. He knew the power of the parallel between Adolf Hitler — the real life dictator — and his made up one. But this quote also symbolizes his belief it was time to move on. The Tramp was dead. His era of films was dead. Chaplin ushered in a new persona with The Great Dictator, one that was not afraid to verbally speak his mind.
The film utilizes actual dialogue for the first time in Chaplin’s career. With producing, scoring, writing, acting (in pantomime) and directing all talents of his, The Great Dictator gave Chaplin an avenue to ascend to a higher filmmaking level.
When the barber must give a speech believed as Hynkel, the barber uses the opportunity to speak his beliefs. The speech is one of film history’s best. The writing is tremendous and powerful. It’s a statement to the world of 1940, but, brilliantly, the speech is for modern audiences. There are no references to the specifics of the day, but to the higher ideals we should have and display as humans.
Chaplin’s despair about technology — which existed in his film world up to this point — washes away. “The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men — cries out for universal brotherhood — for the unity of us all,” the barber cries out at one point. It is a complete reversal of his thoughts from four years earlier: humans can benefit from the advancement of technology. He uses this technology — microphones, dialogue, film — to vocalize his message. The Tramp is no longer here to pantomime his way through a film. This is a new Charlie Chaplin.
The political critiques are evident and clear, but the technology aspect of Chaplin’s filmmaking process is just as interesting. The Great Dictator showcases, for the first time, Chaplin giving in to the technologies of the day — openly admitting that they can be used for good and advancement of humanity. Just a decade before, Chaplin believed simple “talkies” could not be funny. Now “talkies” could change the world.
The power that he delivers the ending speech shows his absolute conviction of his words — or he is just a really great actor.
Chaplin became the “King of Satire” with The Great Dictator. Audiences in the United States and in the United Kingdom massively enjoyed the film, despite World War II was beginning to escalate. The film has endured throughout the years and remains another Charlie Chaplin masterpiece.
Charlie Chaplin is regarded as a master of cinema. There is no doubt about that claim. His silents were wildly popular and still are influential today. His reluctance to use sound, at first, provided an avenue to create something unique and different, only to master the technology to its fullest potential four years later. When his film Limelight opened in London in 1952, Chaplin was told he would have to re-apply for re-entry into the United States over concerns of his political views. Chaplin did not return to the United States for 20 years. His return was met with glitz and glamor: the 1972 Academy Awards. He received an honorary Oscar and was met with a 12-minute standing ovation — the longest in Academy Award history.
Both Modern Times and The Great Dictator are streaming on Filmstruck.