The transition from silent to talking films broke-out in the late 1920’s and drastically changed what was known as cinema. Audiences welcomed the change with exhilarating anticipation and the overarching consensus was that sound was superior to silence. By 1935 silent films became scarce and soon obsolete. Despite this belief there were many who saw the strengths of silence and understood that silent films were able to provide a form of entertainment that dialogue couldn’t achieve. Here I will acknowledge and discuss the capabilities of silent films by analyzing aspects of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights. Since this film was released after the surfacing of “talkies”, it is a direct challenge to the common appeal and succeeds in demonstrating the power of silent films. My analysis of City Lights reveals that silent films demonstrate cinematic capabilities unique to their genre. Specifically, the lack of sound in City Lights is not a flaw. Instead, silence is a component of the film much like sound is a component of talkies.
By the time of talkies, Charlie Chaplin had had a long and successful career. He dominated at a time when comedy was thriving, and contributed significantly to comedy’s popularity, “his brilliant miming, his use of pathos in the midst of hilarious fun and, above all, his humanity struck a sympathetic chord with people all over the world.” Chaplin held reservations about adapting to talkies, not with panic about job security, but because of his deep appreciation for the art. He felt that sound was not superior to silence, instead he believed that sound would ruin cinema. A quote of Chaplin’s illustrates this feeling, “the silence of a love scene is far more stirring than to hear the players say ‘I love you.’”
Chaplin did transition and prove to be successful in the talking era, but he did not make the transition right away. Instead, Chaplin continued on to make three silent films after the release of The Jazz Singer: The Circus (1928), City Lights (1931), and Modern Times (1936). These films were also the last appearances of his beloved character the Tramp. He believed the Tramp’s universal appeal was because people worldwide could relate to him and because the small amount of title cards could easily be translated. If the Tramp were to speak, in English presumably, his viewers would become limited. The last of his silent films are considered by many as Chaplin’s finest and City Lights in particular demonstrates Chaplin’s talents as he took on the role of star, director, writer, and composer for the film, while his own distribution company, United Artists, distributed it.
The lack of sound in City Lights is not a weakness. Silence is a component of the film much like sound can be seen as a component. A film’s components should highlight the important aspects of a film and because Chaplin utilizes gestures so heavily, “the silence of silent film is not simply a medium; it is an instrument. And Chaplin plays it, much as one might play a piano or violin.” With City Lights, Chaplin set out to make his greatest achievement and to create a phenomenal silent film in a time when the rest of the field was focused on sound. It wasn’t an easy process. The film turned out to be his longest and most difficult project taking almost 3 years to make and requiring 180 days of shooting. During this time, the story was constantly being adapted and tweaked and months of footage were shot that never made it into the film. Because of Chaplin’s desire for something near perfection, key actors were often fired, and some even rehired. Hours were spent directing specific movements and re-shooting when things fell short of expectation. When the film was complete there was a lot of anticipation for its release. Fortunately, the film thrived in the box office and received positive reviews from the public as well as from “highbrow publications” . Chaplin funded the entire project, and because of the long production the film’s budget reached roughly 1.6 million dollars. However, even with the film being released at the start of the Great Depression, City Lights earned Chaplin’s studio, the Charles Chaplin Film Corporation, twice the amount of its cost. In the words of writer Charles Maland, “Chaplin’s decision to resist the talkies was a resounding success”. With City Lights, Charlie Chaplin proves that silence has a power that sound does not possess, and like one critic says “City Lights is the quintessential silent film – sound would have ruined it.”
From a minimalist perspective, silent films have a reduced amount of stimuli presented and therefore are better able to focus the viewer’s attention on what is meant to be the focus. In the case of City Lights, the focus of the film is on the small and simple, yet quick, movements that are tightly knit together. The minimal sound, the simple compositions and the modest cinematography highlight these detailed movements and the movements are so well choreographed that a powerful flow underlies the entire film. If sound would have been incorporated the viewer’s attention would be dispersed among the additional stimuli presented. Some of the movements could pass unnoticed or the fluidity could be disrupted and the overall effect lost. Chaplin did utilize the new technology a bit by composing music to accompany the action and also by adding various, well selected sound effects. These uses are few and precisely placed to accentuate the movements, not to take attention away from them. In addition, the film does not lose anything by not incorporating dialogue. Throughout it is clear and comprehensive while also conveying complex emotion and meaning. City Lights is a “quintessential silent film” because it is a film that could only be silent.
The film consists of episodic shorts that are related along a loose storyline and reoccurring characters. After the first scene, the plot involves the Tramp’s meeting and interactions with two others, a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) and a millionaire (Harry Myers). Each encounter has similarities and influences the other without the millionaire and the flower girl ever meeting. It is the Tramp that acts between them. Both the millionaire and the flower girl are blind to who the Tramp really is, though only the flower girl actually cannot see. The Tramp does not know either of them for very long, but both of their lives are significantly altered because of his interference. Humor radiates from the Tramp and the millionaire’s relationship. They meet one evening when the Tramp stumbles upon the drunken millionaire trying to commit suicide. After some mishap, the Tramp successfully convinces the millionaire that life is worth living and the millionaire happily declares the Tramp as a friend for life. To celebrate their new friendship they spend the night out on the town.
After their night out on the town, the Tramp and the millionaire retire in the morning, the millionaire still drunk. The title cards in this film are terse, seen only every once in a while. They are rarely necessary for comprehension, but instead used to supplement the gestures. One of the most comical title cards in the entire film occurs while the millionaire is recklessly driving home that morning. The Tramp states “Be careful how you’re driving” and the millionaire responds “Am I driving?”
Because of the few title cards, the majority of the time when the actors are “speaking” the audience never finds out what is being said. This does not matter; nothing is lost by the viewer’s not knowing the character’s exact exchange of words. For the most part we can easily guess what words are being said because of the crystal clear action and pantomime. It is clearly seen that the millionaire is sad without hearing the words, “I am sad”, and it is clear that the Tramp tries to persuade the millionaire that life is worth living without knowing that he is saying, “life is worth living”. And it is even clear, by his facial expression and body language alone, that there is a shift in the millionaire’s mood once the Tramp consoles him. The lack of spoken dialogue in the film does not obstruct clarity. The silence and reliance on body and expression allow room for analysis, unlike words that tend to make meaning flat, “dialogue can become a crutch. Here, the characters must emit their feelings without voice, and it results in some astounding moments.” Nonverbal communication, like body language, gestures, expressions, hold a sincerity that is often filtered out, or lost, when we talk. These nonverbal communications are valuable because they are not labeled and singular in meaning, allowing the audience to interpret them more deeply. For instance, a sad face can differ slightly depending on what type of sadness. When we make judgments based on a facial expression alone, we can notice differences that give the emotion of sadness more dimensions. However, the words “I am sad” only offers the viewer a single, shallow feeling.
The fluidity of the film, from scene to scene, shot to shot and even from step to step would have been severely compromised with the incorporation of dialogue and other diegetic sound. Furthermore, the addition of recorded sound would have reduced the film’s effectiveness without adding anything to it. James Agee writes in Comics Greatest Era, “it is done so glibly that there is never the slightest doubt as to the meaning Chaplin wishes to convey.”
City Lights refutes the widely held assumption that sound technology improved film. Some silent films could have been better as talkies. In dialogue driven plots, the use of long and dense title cards to present story lines can detract from the viewer experience. However, the addition of sound would have diminished the quality of others. City Lights is a case in point. Through meticulous choreography down to single movements, the film flows smoothly from step to step within every shot, and through every scene. Every scene is then held together with title cards announcing the time of day, conjoining and uniting the episodic structure used. The attention to detail applied in this film is what facilitates this fluidity, but that attention would likely have been dispersed if Chaplin would have made the transition to sound earlier. City Lights is a perfected silent film. Though the making of the film was long and difficult, the outcome was a tremendous contribution to the art of cinema.