I’ve been working on this blog for three months now. Looking over my previous posts, I realized something: they’re all basically the same. Whether it’s a science fiction epic or a neo-noir comedy or something more abstract, every one of these essays has focused on some aspect of storytelling. Who are the characters? How does the structure of the story shed light on the themes of the movie? What’s the meaning of that one scene?
The trouble with this approach is that it strips the cinematic experience of its distinctive features. We ask these same questions of novels, plays, narrative poetry. Movies have a lot in common with other forms of storytelling, but there are also crucial differences. Probably the biggest of these differences is the use of sound.
We all know that cinema began as a silent medium. The fact is, it hasn’t really left those origins behind. The editing techniques that we take for granted in movies today — montage, inter-cutting, point of view shots — developed initially as a way to tell complex stories without dialogue or narration. Then, in the mid- to late-1920s, everything changed.
Most people [and quiz shows] will tell you that The Jazz Singer (1927) was the first sound film, but that’s not really true. Several attempts were made during the first decades of cinema to marry sound and image, first with phonographs played simultaneously with the film, later with sound-on-film. This allowed films to play with pre-recorded scores and sometimes sound effects. The Roaring Twenties saw both newsreel footage with sound [including Charles Lindbergh’s takeoff and triumphant return] and a smattering of musical shorts.
The Jazz Singer changed the game because it convinced Hollywood that sound films were actually bankable. Al Jolson’s stage patter — “Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothing yet” — drove audiences wild. The big studios began aggressively pursuing the new trend. Every film in mid-production was rewritten to include at least one dialogue scene. Completed films that were slated for release had additional footage inserted into them — a process referred to as “goat glanding” for reasons I choose not to investigate. The “talkies” were born.
This new direction created a huge problem. Most movie theaters in 1927 were not wired for sound, especially in rural America. This meant that most filmgoers were probably not going to hear the conversations in the film. The studios got around this by creating two different versions of their pictures: those with the extra scenes and those without. Problem solved…except that, in practice, this meant that the dialogue scenes in early talkies had to be completely extraneous to the plot. If you don’t know that your audience is going to hear the dialogue, you can’t use it to further your story. The end result: pointless chitchat, there for the sheer novelty of watching people move their mouths and have words come out. Small wonder that Alfred Hitchcock, whose Blackmail became Britain’s first successful talkie, dismissed the new films as “photographs of people talking.”Likewise, Charlie Chaplin told an interviewer that sound films were a fad that would last “three years, that’s all.” When his City Lights was released four years later, however, the landscape of American film had changed forever. The talkies had won.
You might expect audiences of 1931 to have looked at the film as an oddity, the work of a stubborn traditionalist who couldn’t tell which way the winds were blowing.Yet City Lights turned out to be one of Chaplin’s most successful films, both financially and critically. There are probably lots of reasons why it achieved that success — Chaplin’s Tramp character was, after all, a cultural icon — but one thing which I think truly sets this film apart from its contemporaries was in its innovative use of sound.
Keep in mind that, when we talk about a silent versus a sound film, we’re talking about dialogue. Silent films throughout the 1920s had incorporated pre-recorded scores and sound effects. Chaplin does the same thing here, and to incredible effect. Where most of his contemporaries filled their movies with wall-to-wall dialogue for its own sake, Chaplin recognized sound for what it was: another tool in the filmmaker’s arsenal. Sound should serve the purpose of the film, not the other way around.
Car Doors and Boxing Bells
You may have heard it said that sound is fifty percent of any film. There’s a lot of truth in that. Look at any of the films we’ve covered on this blog, or any film from the last eighty years. Every footstep, every glass clinked in a cafe, every leaf rustling in the wind — each serves to immerse us in the world of the film, to create a sense that the story we’re watching is really happening. In City Lights, Chaplin is after something else entirely.
The film opens as a crowd gathers in the park to watch the unveiling of a new statue, “Peace and Prosperity.” A rotund politician steps to the microphone, raises his arms, and addresses the crowd — but not with words. Instead, a series of kazoo-like squawks seem to stream from his mouth. A lady soon takes his place at the podium, emitting her own, higher pitched squawks.
One can only imagine the effect that this must have had on the initial audiences. The previous four years had given them ample time to adjust to crowd scenes in talkies; their long exposure to silent films before 1927 taught them how to experience the same types of scenes without sound. Neither could prepare them for the collision of the two. Here was Chaplin’s riposte to the sound films that had conquered the world, a figurative as well as literal thumbing of the nose at everyone who had a hand in the demise of silent cinema.
The main story of City Lights revolves around Chaplin’s Tramp, who meets and falls in love with a blind flower girl. Crossing a busy street, the Tramp finds his path blocked by a traffic jam. Undeterred, he climbs into a parked car and out the other side. On the sidewalk again, he closes the door, catching the attention of the blind flower girl. The young woman assumes this is an aristocrat getting out of his own car; the Tramp is too much of a gentleman to correct her mistake [or her subsequent ones — during one memorable sequence, she mistakes a loose thread from his long-johns for the end of the yarn he’s holding for her, and slowly unravels the poor Tramp’s underwear].
What’s interesting is that the catalyst for this entire story — the closing of the car door — is a sound we don’t hear. In fact, there are only perhaps a half-dozen scenes in which sound effects play any role at all. With one exception, every one of these sound effects forms the centerpiece of a gag. At a party, the Tramp accidentally swallows a whistle, and spends the remainder of the scene hiccuping, every spasm releasing another chirp. During the film’s famous boxing sequence, the bell rings to signify the beginning and end of each round. This serves as the set-up for a gag in which the rope gets twisted around the Tramp’s neck; every time his opponent knocks him down, the bell rings and the two men go to their corners. No sooner is the Tramp in his corner than the tension in the rope causes it to ring again, causing his opponent to leap forward, arms swinging.
The one scene which seems to deviate from this pattern is the climactic police chase. The Tramp has befriended an alcoholic millionaire. They have been on many late-night adventures together, yet in the morning, the now sober gentleman doesn’t recognize his friend, and throws him back out into the street. The Tramp bumps into him after the disastrous boxing match, and tells him about the blind girl. Not only is he trying to save her from eviction; if he can scrape together the money for her to travel to Europe, she can get a free operation to restore her sight. The millionaire gives him a thousand dollars. Just then, two burglars appear and knock the millionaire unconscious. The Tramp chases them off and phones the police. However, when the cops arrive, they find the Tramp’s pockets filled with cash. The millionaire, sobered by the blow to his head, does not recognize the Tramp, and doesn’t remember giving him the money. A chase ensues. Sirens wail; shots are fired. The Tramp escapes.
I say that it seems to deviate from the pattern of the other sound sequences. Actually, they’re two sides of one coin. Chaplin uses sound to elicit specific responses from his audience. Sometimes, he’s going for a laugh, as when he slurps a strand of spaghetti, accompanied by a slide whistle. Sometimes, he’s amping up the excitement of the scene. Imagine the police chase without the sirens, without the officer’s pistol shots. It might come across as comical, a la the Keystone Cops. Instead, we fear for the Tramp’s life and liberty as he dodges a posse of flatfoots. We sigh with relief as he manages to slip away into the night.
Chaplin was, first and foremost, a master communicator. From decades of performing in silent films, he knew how to manipulate audiences with the slightest gesture or change of expression. He approached sound in the same way, relying on it only when he could not accomplish the same effect visually. By doing so, he created a wholly different viewing experience from the one afforded by the “talkies.” City Lights required audiences to play a more active interpretive role than did, say, Blackmail or Tenderloin. For the 21st-century viewer, this job is perhaps even more daunting, for it requires us to shed decades of ingrained movie-watching habits. We must learn a new way of seeing and understanding film.
A New Way Of Seeing
Chaplin’s sparing application of sound effects results in a different kind of immersion for the viewer. We accept the reality of the film’s world, not because of its three-dimensional textures, but because of the subtle, realistic performances of the actors.* We are drawn in, watching with rapt attention every movement, every look. And it’s only because we’ve entered this world, learned this way of seeing, that the final scene has the power that it does. The performances by Chaplin and actress Virginia Cherrill are so subtle and complex that, were this a sound picture, we might not even notice them. We’d be caught up in the dialogue, half our attention on the sounds of the street around them. Here, none of that matters. Everything else falls away, leaving only these two people and this one moment of truth.
I’m not going to go into the details of the narrative here, trusting you to follow the link above. But — notice Chaplin’s face, when he realizes she’s coming out of the shop. Notice the movement of her fingers on his hand, and the slow dawning of comprehension in her eyes. The tenderness there as she speaks the film’s final words [via title card]: “Yes, I can see now.” So much emotion in their faces — joy, and sorrow, and hope. It’s unsurprising that James Agee called this last scene the “greatest single piece of acting ever committed to celluloid.”
Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights represented the first truly artistic use of sound in film. Watching it all these years later, we realize that good sound design is just as much about the reasons for the sounds that we hear as it is the sounds themselves. And sometimes, the best sound of all is silence. In his 1997 retrospective of Chaplin’s films, Roger Ebert wrote,
“Most of Chaplin’s films are available on video. Children who see them at a certain age don’t notice they’re ‘silent’ but notice only that every frame speaks clearly to them, without all those mysterious words that clutter other films. Then children grow up, and forget this wisdom, but the films wait patiently and are willing to teach us again.”
Thank God for that.
On deck: Duality and identity in the Swedish countryside…
*Consider a bare-stage theatrical production like Our Town. Provided that it is well-performed, the lack of sets, props, etc in no way detracts from the overall quality of the experience, which is rooted in the interplay between characters.