In the 1930s, Americans needed a distraction to take their minds off the Great Depression. They found it at the movies.
Beginning with Al Jolson’s “The Jazz Singer” in 1927, the entertainment industry quickly made a transition from silent film to “talkies.” Suddenly, audiences could hear the actors speak when their lips moved on screen.
Charlie Chaplin didn’t approve. He fought against the transition, proclaiming silent film to be a superior art form and better suited to “Chaplin’s particular genius,” which was a combination of pantomime and meaningful narrative, according to John Bruns, director of the College of Charleston’s film studies program.
“He was a man of enormous ego,” Bruns said. “He was trying to preserve his own art.”
And so Chaplin wrote, directed and starred in “City Lights,” a 1931 picture that was defiantly silent, except for a musical score composed by Chaplin. William Eddins will conduct the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra’s live accompaniment of that score when “City Lights” screens twice on Monday at the Sottile Theatre.
The popularity of sound pictures had skyrocketed in the four years since their advent, which made the silence of Chaplin’s new movie somewhat of a novelty — but he gambled that the public would continue to find his beloved Little Tramp character relevant. And he won: “City Lights,” a romantic comedy following Chaplin’s Tramp as he falls in love with a blind girl and befriends an alcoholic millionaire, was the year’s third-highest-grossing film, beating out Bela Lugosi’s “Dracula.”
Still, he was right to be uneasy: Chaplin was a master of a medium that was quickly becoming old news.
“Seventy percent of his income was from the rest of the world, not America,” said Dan Kamin, a performer and Chaplin expert who trained Robert Downey Jr. for his Oscar-nominated performance in the title role of the film “Chaplin.” “If he opened his mouth and spoke, he would lose a lot of those people. He spoke a universal, primal language of movement.”
The fear of speaking out loud went beyond the language he spoke to the way he spoke it. Chaplin worried that his British accent would weaken the universal appeal of the Tramp, Bruns said. Hearing that well-meaning vagabond speak with a high-class accent would have been a confusing paradox.
Switching to live sound posed other threats to Chaplin’s style. His comedy was purely visual: He even showed things at a slightly speeded-up pace, because it made physical stunts look funnier. “You can’t speed up dialogue, or people will sound like Mickey Mouse,” Kamin said.
Also, the cameras for recording early silent films were light and fluid; a crew could easily trail actors performing incredible physical feats. “Recording sound live was cumbersome,” said Frank Cossa, professor emeritus of the film studies program at the College of Charleston. “Cameras became bigger, heavier and slower-moving. There was something wonderful about the freedom of old silent movies.”
Even the ones that came four years after everyone else started talking.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse Univeristy.