CineMathematics or CinemaThematics. Your choice

Sunday, September 09, 2007

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.

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Blogger Joe Thompson said...

Dan: I enjoyed your analysis very much. I get sad when I think of what Buster Keaton wanted to do with sound, as opposed to what he got an opportunity to do.

I have to respond to your comment about Chaplin's direction of Jack Oakie. "The Great Dictator" was the only movie I've seen Jack Oakie in where I could stand him. I think his oafish personality fit perfectly with Napolini/Mussolini. I think Chaplin encouraged Oakie to carry it so far over the top.

Joe Thompson ;0)

12:00 AM

Blogger Ed Hardy, Jr. said...

You wrote:

"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."

This is a fascinating point and something that, in several viewings over the last ten years, I've never noticed about "City Lights." Bravo.

Now, you may stone me as a deconstructionist for pointing this out, but it's too brilliant to pass up: "Sound is at the connection, and it lies at the heart of the film," you write, then you go on to talk about how sound leads to deceit and violence in the world of the film. Take a look again at the quoted sentence, and the superb way in which the word "lies" turns on a double meaning. Sound is positioned at the center of the film, but it is also deceitful at the center of the film. Neat-o!

Thanks for one of the more interesting posts in this blog-a-thon.

1:01 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dan - Great post about the dynamic relationship between sound and silence operating in these Chaplin films. Your example of Hynkel's inspired gibberish speech as an example of how sound can be used for laughs is on the mark. I might have to return to TGD for another look. Thanks for adding this piece to the blog-a-thon.

3:49 PM

Blogger Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Great essay. I also love that comment about the sound of the slamming car door being the catalyst for the blind girl mistaking Chaplin for a millionaire. I blogged on this film recently, and failed to realize the significance of her mistake being based on sound.

5:47 PM

Blogger Dan E. said...

Joe: I'm not familiar at all with Oakie outside of The Great Dictator, but his performance there just rubbed me the wrong way. I can understand that Napolini is an annoying character, but, at least for me, that serves no purpose within the film. His character goes nowhere, and almost every joke he had fell flat. If he works for you, that's fine. I just think I'll stay away from Oakie in the future.

Ed: You're talking to a guy who based a blog post on the sound of a gun. I'm not one to be stoning deconstructionists. And thanks for noticing. I didn't realize I was so eloquent.

Thom: I should be thanking you for hosting the blog-a-thon. It's a great subject, and the posts I've read so far are great. I can't wait to see what film(s) you choose for 1939. It's hard to pick one out of what is generally considered the greatest year in film history.

Jacqueline: That idea is something I didn't originally intend to include in the post, but it sounded too good to let go. Thanks for the comment.

7:13 PM


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