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CITY LIGHTS and LE MILLION: Silence Is Golden

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In the fall of 1930, Charles Chaplin was still shooting C ITY L IGHTS . He stridently reassured his fans, “My own pictures will always be silent.” Furthermore, he believed that there were enough like-minded producers to justify forming a company to satisfy what he called “a strong market for inaudible pictures.” He was allocating $5-10 million for a new studio in the San Fernando Valley where he would direct two silent dramas annually and produce five silent features a year by other directors. (He did not plan to appear in these films himself.)

Chaplin hoped that CITY LIGHTS would revive the silent film. His dream of starting his own studio to produce nondialogue features was still alive on the eve of the premiere. The press book heralded: “CITY LIGHTS IS Expected to Change Trend of Film World…. Movie Prophets Predict Avalanche of Talkless Pictures as a Result.” The director seized every opportunity to denounce dialogue films, but now he conceded that they were here to stay:

I shall never speak in a film. I hate the talkies and will not produce talking films. The American industry is transformed. So much the better or worse, it leaves me indifferent. I cannot conceive of my films as other than silent. My shadow appears on the screen as in a dream, and dreams do not speak. Artists, like Will Rogers, Rebe Daniels, Gloria Swanson, Bessie Love are interested in interpreting the talking films because they are thus able to present the maximum of their talent. But they are actors; as for me, I am a mime and all the nuances of my art would be destroyed if I were to accompany them with words or with sound effects. (Quoted in Theatre Arts Monthly , November 1930, p. 908)

The long-awaited premiere of CITY LIGHTS took place on Friday, 30 January 1931. Los Angeles police estimated that fifty thousand fans tried to catch a glimpse of the star. Two police officers escorted Chaplin to his seat in the theater. True to his word, Chaplin released the film with a music score, but without dialogue.

The New York Times recognized Chaplin’s intention; the headline announced, “Takes Fling at Talkies.’” The trade papers treated the film as a test case. Would Chaplin’s reputation keep silents viable? “The lively controversy which it was predicted would be started by Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights is now raging, following the premier of the picture Friday night at the new Los Angeles [theater],” Film Daily reported. “Praise of the silent comedy is enthusiastic, but opinions are sharply at variance on the point of whether it will influence any appreciable trend back to silents. The majority so far think not.” The Record gave a typical pronouncement: “City Lights , though it was received with whole-hearted delight and punctuated with innumerable bursts of applause from the audience, is no menace for the talkies. It is the exception that proves the rule.” 42 In January 1931, the American film industry had long passed the point at which it could have reverted to silent production even had it wanted to—and it did not.

The Los Angeles reception of Chaplin’s film seems to have tempered his feelings about the future of silents. He admitted as much when he was interviewed in New York upon arriving to attend the 6 February premiere at the George M. Cohan Theater. Silent pictures, he conceded, would never return, but he was still confident that a number of films would be made without dialogue. The new studio he had claimed to be establishing was no longer mentioned. Now he even foresaw directing a talker of his own, but never acting in one. He announced that a current project (never to materialize) would have a Spanish theme and be dialogue-free.

In New York, despite a skirmish with United Artists about the publicity, rental, and admission price that caused Chaplin to take over the premiere himself, CITY LIGHTS succeeded fabulously. 44 But clearly the film failed to open the door to a new kind of “talkless” picture, in part because it was quite old-fashioned, not only in its technique but in its story. Alexander Bakshy, in The Nation , derided the directors mawkishness: “Chaplin’s growing seriousness, his desire to be more than a mere comedian deceived him into holding sentiment more precious than fun.”

CITY LIGHTS’ success was not transferable, either to other films or to other actors. Most commentators saw Chaplin as a unique genius. Alicoate discussed this pyrrhic victory:

The irresistible Mr. Chaplin paid Broadway his tri-ennial visit last evening and as usual Mr. Chaplin sent home the smartest first night audience of the season again singing his praises as the greatest pantomimist of all time. City Lights is all silent and typically Chaplinesque in its mixture of laughs, tears, pathos and slapstick. The story, although episodic, hits the high spots with delightful frequency. As to the question of sound vs. silent, this Chaplin affair settles nothing. Chaplin is king. He can do no cinema wrong. He could turn handsprings anywhere in filmland where others would not dare to tread. For instance, here he even gives sound the merry raspberry via travesty and it is as delicious a screen morsel as one will find. If City Lights does nothing else it will demonstrate that Silence is Golden, at least in this instance, and as far as City Lights the box-office is concerned. (Film Daily , 8 February 1931, p. 1)

For the New York critics, the director-star’s performance eclipsed the sound issue: “Chaplin is so perfect and his comedy inventions are so distinguished,” offered the Herald-Tribune , “that even those of us who are enthusiasts for the speechless manner   will realize that [CITY LIGHTS ‘] success is due to its star’s perfection in his medium.” The Journal’s argument was expressed as simple logic: “City Lights is entertaining, and entertainment is a quality that is not limited to any one medium. Therefore the absence of dialogue in this production raises no argument on the subject of speech versus silence.” According to the World , “The fact that City Lights is told by pantomime rather than by spoken dialogue goes practically unnoticed in witnessing the picture.” 46 Film Daily’s commentator wrote that Chaplin’s refusal to go talkie was good business sense: “And why have so many screen idols with good voices crashed since they started to talk in the talkies? So Charlie, the Wisest of ’em All, preserves his Mystery and Elusiveness in City Lights by not using his Voice. For Charlie knows better than anybody that his great comedy talent alone would not keep him perennially popular.”

CITY LIGHTS was a lucrative testament to Chaplin’s incredible star power. It made millions in profits worldwide during the bleakest years of the Depression. But it was neither a turning point nor the swan song of the silent film. As an idiosyncratic vehicle for Chaplin, it did not seriously challenge sound production practices, either by showing the superiority of silent acting technique or by repudiating the aesthetic inroads made by the talkies. It should be pointed out that CITY LIGHTS is not the “pure” silent film that Chaplin and reviewers publicized. Its score was carefully arranged (by Chaplin and Arthur Johnston) to closely complement the action, exactly like the music for synchronized features circa 1928. Hall shrewdly commented, “There are times when the notes serve almost for words.” There are two scenes which foreground dialogue by parodying it. The now-famous opening sequence finds the Little Tramp asleep on a monumental statue during its public unveiling ceremony. The dignitaries speak, but farty squawks emanate from their mouths instead of words. Chaplin equated lip-synched speech with highbrow pomposity and flatulent bourgeois complacency. Later Chaplin swallows a whistle, and its notes substitute for his voice. “This is what I think of your dialogue film,” he seems to be expostulating. One aspect of the plot of CITY LIGHTS dramatizes Chaplin’s theoretical position. The Little Tramp befriends a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill). Through many tragicomic mishaps, he provides her with enough money to have an operation that gives her sight. The emphasis on vision as necessary to being a whole person argues for its special status relative to speech and hearing. This, of course, is also the privileged sensory mode of the silent cinema.

CITY LIGHTS did confirm that dialogue was not a strict requirement to carry a film to a great critical or popular success. A movement to go back to silent technique was already in the air. It was not that anyone wanted to make silent movies again per se. Some proponents wanted to return to the practice of single-camera cinematography, but others were usually advocating that the all-talking, all-singing film be superseded by movies with modulated techniques which would enable talkies to utilize some formal conventions of silent production, if that was the desired effect. Producers were alternating nondialogue passages with talking and limiting background music to underscoring dramatic moments. The modulated sound track concept guarded a special place for silence. Alicoate noted that audiences were finding talk boring: “Pictorially you can hold almost any audience if the action is sufficiently thrilling, enticing or entertaining. Trying to hold that self-same audience with a two-hour load of inane, stupid talk is quite another and more difficult problem. Of course, every writer of dialogue cannot be constantly brilliant, but one thing is certain, unless he is continuously entertaining his picture cannot be commercially successful.”

Another inspiration for the so-called silent technique was found in René Clair’s Parisian comedy LE MILLION , which opened in New York in May 1931. Clair deeply admired Chaplin and may have had the implications of the theme of restored vision in CITY LIGHTS in mind when he made his famous statement, “A blind man attending a true dramatic work and a deaf man attending a real film, even though they are both losing an important part of the work being presented, would not lose the essential part” Unlike Chaplin, who repudiated the talkies in CITY LIGHTS Clair seized upon sound with a vengeance, playfully foregrounding its artificiality. In contrast to, say, WHOOPEE !, in which the acoustic dimension is subsidiary to the performance and the auditor is encouraged to ignore the sound, LE MILLION never lets us forget that the acoustic component is as much a construction as the whitewashed sets. Clair’s offbeat musical romance built around the pursuit of a winning lottery ticket replaced dialogue with actors singing and talking in rhyming couplets. Clair created teasing confusions between on- and off-screen sound. He also experimented with asynchronous audio tricks, as in the famous scene in which a chase after a coat is synched to the cheers of an invisible football (or rugby) crowd. The surprisingly strong response and the enormous acclaim for Clair’s film excited critics. His simplified plot, minimized dialogue, and reliance on “pantomime” revealed an economical yet pleasing way to make a sound film. Why this style was misnamed “silent” is unfathomable, but the end product was certainly different from the effect of the modulated sound track. Film Daily advised domestic filmmakers to learn from this new international style: “The tendency is toward a return of the expressive pictorial technique of the silent film, with sound, music and a limited amount of dialogue in the background, the idea being that pictures of this type have the best chance of breaking through the barriers of all countries.” Joseph Schnitzer, president of Radio Pictures, announced a return to silent film technique for his company’s 1931-1932 season:

Dialogue will be minimized and used only to serve a similar purpose to the printed title, namely, to motivate the action and clarify situations. This move will serve two important purposes. Firstly, the novelty of sound is wearing off. By that I mean, the American public at first was anxious to have every click and footstep recorded in sound. Those times have passed. Combining silent picture technique with sound will do away with uninteresting talking sequences where two people sit at a table and talk for five or ten minutes without any action whatever. Secondly, the picture will be more adaptable to foreign versions. (Film Daily , 13 July 1931, pp. 1, 11)

Everyone, including Hollywood moguls, enjoyed Chaplin’s little joke and LE MILLION’S creativity. These films may have influenced a few comedy productions. Keaton’s PARLOR , BEDROOM AND BATH (dir. Edward Sedgwick, 1931), and Harold Lloyd’s FEET FIRST (dir. Clyde Bruckman, 1930), for example, contain more “pantomime” than the previous talkies of those two actors. For several industry spokespersons and popular critics as well, restoring the techniques of the past became a rallying cry. Whether these films and their commentators’ favorable remarks actually had significant impact on Hollywood production is difficult to ascertain. Universal Pictures announced in June that it would remake LE MILLION in English—but it never did. Cecil B. DeMille did call for more old silent picture technique, with dialogue used as an auxiliary. There is not the slightest trace of an effort to do so in his third and final MGM production, THE SQUAW MAN (1931), a remake of his Western done previously in 1914 and 1918. Recalling the Warner Proportion of 1928-1929, Paramount announced that its new comedy formula was 90 percent action mixed with 10 percent dialogue. The Film Daily poll reported a more moderate exhibitor consensus that 25 percent dialogue was about right.

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