The Sounds of Chaplin
This is my contribution to the Slapstick Blog-A-Thon over at Film of the Year. Make sure to check out the hub for some great writing.
Everyone knows about Charlie Chaplin. His Tramp is probably the most recognizable image from all of silent film. His films are required viewing for anyone who wants even the most basic understanding of silent film, and the history behind City Lights, Modern Times, and The Great Dictator are practically legend. He remained silent for 10 years after the rest of the world started talking. But his relationship with sound is much more complex and fascinating than most people think.
Take this scene from The Great Dictator (It lasts from about the 4 minute mark to the 5 minute mark):
This scene effectively combines comedy that doesn't need sound with comedy that comes entirely from sound. The line of officers is a gag that could only work in the sound world. Part of that stems from the evolution of the voices. What was originally a simple order gains a hint of sadism as the lower officers gain glee from not having to do this duty. Chaplin understands the key use of sound in comedy. A comedy in the sound era must be able to use sound as a punchline, not merely as an accompaniment to the visual. The comedy isn't in the dialogue but in the voices. Chaplin uses this again during Hynkel's first speech. The comedy is entirely in Chaplin's voice.
Next comes the silent comedy. The missile follows Chaplin's barber as he tries to examine it. Once the barber is given this job, there is no sound. No music, no footsteps, nothing. Chaplin knows what we expect coming into the movie. We paid money to see Chaplin running around without sound, so Chaplin gives us just that. It's well done, of course, but it almost feels obligatory. Chaplin doesn't have another moment like this in the rest of the film, which is unfortunate, especially considering Jack Oakie's screentime is a career low for Chaplin as a director. Nevertheless, this moment proves to us that Chaplin still knows how to work without sound.
This scene ends with the reintroduction of sound. As the missile begins firing sparks, we know that things have just become funnier. We don't need the sound to know what's going on, yet Chaplin gives it to us. The sound gives these new developments an immediacy that heightens the tension and hilarity. The sound, following the absolute silence as it does, is as shocking to us as it is the the barber. It would have lacked that if it were silent.
City Lights isn't completely silent, as many think. Whenever the millionaire's gun is fired, there is a bang to go with it. This seems to be Chaplin's main use of actual sound. A slip is accompanied by a slide whistle, and most bangs come with a loud drum, but the gun doesn't get an instrument. Watch between 8:30 and 9:30:
The explosion draws us back into some sort of reality. The film is, if nothing else, a fantasy. We never need to fear for the Tramp, because his falls aren't real. They're timed to drums, just as every appearance of the blind girl comes with violins. It is a world distinctly different from ours, except for the gun. The gun fires like a real one would, and it is the only connection between the Tramp's world and the real world. Sound is the connection, and it lies at the heart of the film. Of course, it is the sound of the car door closing that makes the blind girl mistake the Tramp for a millionaire. In this way, Chaplin points to sound as a way of deceit. The gun is the only thing that is real. Even at this point, Chaplin's opinions on violence shine through. We don't need to fear for the Tramp. We need to fear the gun. No matter what, that is real.