not in our stars, but in ourselves
NOTE: I’m cheating a bit here, as this is a longer essay I’d written some years ago – but hell, why not post it here for this. And yes, I agree that Chaplin is a sentimental old fop – but so am I. Deal with it.
By 1931, talkies had become the standard in Hollywood. Early sound technology had been unreliable, difficult to manage, and, initially, detrimental to the creative process. Still, studios continued to work with it, and to develop it so that every major Hollywood director shot sound films.
Every major Hollywood director, that is, except for Charles Chaplin. In 1931, after it had been in production for three years, he released City Lights, and aside from the score – which he composed and arranged – and a very few sound effects, it is a silent film, complete with intertitles and pantomime. He wrote in his autobiography that he “did not wish to be the only adherent of the art of silent pictures.” Yet, he asserted, “City Lights was an ideal silent picture, and nothing could deter me from making it.”
Universality is a key feature of Chaplin’s Little Tramp, and this universality would have been unthinkable if the Tramp had spoken; Chaplin himself understood this, more clearly than anyone. When he arrived in Hollywood in 1913, cinema was in its infancy. It was, of course, silent, and so Chaplin learned how to make movies without relying on anything but his own extraordinarily eloquent person to express himself. His second film, The Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914), featured the Little Tramp for the first time – a character whom Chaplin, in a bit of brilliant improvisation, created on the spot: he borrowed Fatty Arbuckle’s pants, Mack Swain’s little toothbrush moustache, and Ford Sterling’s oversized shoes (Chaplin was only five feet, five inches tall, so nearly anything would have been oversized on him). The costume assembled, Chaplin immediately began to shuffle his oddly mincing, turned-out walk – “the remembered gait of an old peddler he had observed during his days on the London streets.” From these few elements, cobbled together for a Keystone two-reel comedy that was shot in perhaps two or three days, Chaplin fashioned an internationally known icon. Arthur Knight writes,
Within two years of his first screen appearance, his name had become a household word. There were Chaplin dolls, Chaplin toys, Chaplin contests. People danced “The Chaplin Walk”; children used his name in their counting-out rhymes. There were Chaplin imitators – even in the films – and Chaplin cartoons both in the newspapers and on the screen. “I am here today” – this simple announcement printed over a cutout of Chaplin tipping his hat was all that a theater manager needed to lure the customers into his house. No one bothered to ask either title or story.
Such superstardom extended to more than mere celebrity status: in those early days of cinema, Chaplin created a persona that, to this day, is unsurpassed in recognition, appeal, and complexity. Alexander Woollcott – one of Dorothy Parker’s luncheon buddies at the Algonquin Club – put the Little Tramp in the same league “as Falstaff or Don Quixote”: a universally known character who unites comedy with tragedy in one ridiculous, lovable figure. The Tramp is an outsider. He lives alone, but yearns for the girl. He seldom has a home of his own – at the beginning of City Lights, he is sleeping in the lap of a statue meant to celebrate “Peace and Prosperity” – but he tries desperately to make himself at home among the rich and the beautiful. He wears the shabbiest clothes, but he wears them with the aplomb of the most dapper English dandy. He is constantly disappointed in his quests – for the girl, for shelter, for food, for money – but he always goes forward, hoping for better things tomorrow. Even as early as 1914, Chaplin understood the Tramp in depth; he explained to Mack Sennett,
You know this fellow is many-sided, a tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure. He would have you believe he is a scientist, a musician, a duke, and a polo-player. However, he is not above picking up cigarette-butts or robbing a baby of its candy.
All of these characteristics of the Tramp, intuitively fused together by Chaplin when he borrowed his fellow comedians’ clothes and began to perform for the camera, are good explanations of why he was so beloved. The how of the Tramp’s universality is cinema – silent cinema.
That brings us back to City Lights. Chaplin’s previous picture, The Circus, was released in 1928, when silents were still flourishing, in an autumn sunset sort of way: the best directors crafted ravishingly beautiful films, moving images full of richness and subtlety; they were, however, the last signs of beauty and life before what some considered the winter ahead. For Chaplin and others regarded the advent of sound as a winter for film, a time of cold technicality, dead creativity, and bleak originality.
Sound technology was, in 1928, so new and primitive that it was easy for silent film-lovers to scorn it. Early talkies had none of the visual fluidity of, say, Pandora’s Box or The Passion of Joan of Arc. Because the sound equipment was temperamental, and because booms were not yet invented, actors had to place themselves within recording distance of stationary microphones hidden on the set; cameras had to record at a set speed of twenty-four frames per second in order for the sound to play in sync with the film. Many early talkies were shot on Vitaphone equipment, meaning that the movie was shot on film and the sound was recorded on a vinyl record. When the film was played, the record was played as well. There were, of course, all kinds of mishaps with records skipping and slipping out of sync with the images playing on the screen, and the quality of the sound was poor as well.
It was in 1928 that Chaplin began to work on City Lights. He never conceived of it as a talkie, not only because he found sound films to be uninteresting and unwatchable; he simply could not imagine his Tramp character speaking. As production dragged on, Chaplin grew nervous about his “anachronistic” film. He saw that the cinematic world was undergoing a revolution, but he would not and could not join in. The Little Tramp spoke volumes without ever saying a word.
Chaplin said, “Everything I do is a dance. I think in terms of dance”; City Lights is ripe with his pantomimic dance, as much ballet as it is cinema. One of Chaplin’s favorite scenes was the boxing match, where the scrawny Tramp has agreed to fight a hulking brute because he hopes desperately to win the fifty-dollar prize, so he can pay the flower girl’s overdue rent. The referee stands between the Tramp and his opponent, and the bell rings to start the match. The referee moves to one side so that the fight can begin, but the Tramp steps to the same side, close behind him. The opponent steps to the same side, to try to get at the Tramp, but the referee steps to the opposite side to avoid the opponent and begin the fight; the Tramp continues to shadow the referee, and the whole process continues for some time. Each actor is in perfect time with the other two. Their pas de trois falls apart when the referee finally gets himself out of the way, but they are always moving in meticulously crafted choreography.
The boxing scene is balletic, in its way, and so are many others throughout City Lights: the initial meeting between the Tramp and the girl, the drunk millionaire’s suicide attempt and rescue by the Tramp, the Tramp’s fey attempts to ingratiate himself with his opponent before the boxing match. Throughout this film, and all his previous films, Chaplin chose scenarios and situations that were perfectly suited to silent film. With pantomime and perhaps a particular piece of music, he could convey meaning, laughter, and emotion to anyone, from anywhere; he could touch each person in the audience, and make them feel exactly what he wished to make them feel. As Gerald Mast writes, “intimacy is at the heart of Chaplin’s cinematic method. The intimate relationship of spectator and performer in the cinema – the subtle delicacy of Chaplin’s gesture and expression – could not possibly exist on the legitimate or music-hall stage.” Similarly, as Kevin Brownlow notes,
The secret of the silent film lay in its unique ability to conjure up a situation that closely involved an audience, because demands were made on its imagination. The audience responded to suggestion, supplied the missing sounds and voices, and became a creative contributor to the process of projection.
Chaplin used the inherent intimacy of silent film, and combined it with his own delicate blend of pantomime and dance, and in the process created an icon. For the Tramp, words would have been superfluous, distracting.
Consider the final scene, which, James Agee wrote, “is enough to shrivel the heart […] the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies.” When the girl recognizes the Tramp as her benefactor, Chaplin shows, in a mere few seconds of screen time, the depth and breadth of emotion that entire volumes of poetry, novels, symphonies and arias sometimes succeed in expressing. As she places a rose and a coin in his hand, she recognizes his touch, and realizes that this poor, ridiculous Tramp is her former benefactor, the man who loved her and whom she loved.
In an intertitle, she asks, “You?” He nods enthusiastically, clutching the flower to his lips. “You can see now?” he asks – and even though this is a silent film, and sound would absolutely have ruined the whole thing, it is easy to imagine that his voice is as gentle and loving as the quiet orchestral accompaniment, replete with violins and cellos. She answers, “Yes, I can see now,” and the camera cuts to one of the most heartbreaking close-ups in cinema: the Tramp’s worn face bursts into an ecstatic and agonized smile.
No multitude of words can convey the fleeting fluidity of emotions that cross the Tramp’s face: pain, rapture, enchantment, fear, hope – these are all there, but each follows and flows into the other like water. Chaplin said, many years later, that that final scene
was a beautiful sensation of not acting, of standing outside of myself. The key was exactly right – slightly embarrassed, delighted about meeting her again – apologetic without getting emotional about it. [The Tramp] was watching and wondering without any effort. It’s one of the purest […close-ups] that I’ve ever done.
It is perfectly clear to the viewer what the Tramp feels, since most viewers are intimately familiar with those emotions, but the viewer would struggle to express those same emotions verbally. To describe them is perhaps to know what they are; but to see them is to feel what they are.
The central question of each of Chaplin’s films is that of the human heart, the heart that loves, hates, aches, overflows. For these universal themes, Chaplin used a universal language: silent cinema. City Lights is the last of his films that features the Tramp as the protagonist; likewise, it is the last of his truly silent films. With the same trepidation, tenderness, and boundless hope as the Tramp gazing into the girl’s eyes, Chaplin asks us to give the silent film one last chance before it is forgotten.