When we go to the cinema’s nowadays, we, as an audience, expect to hear the actors talk to one another. Guess what, one hundred years ago the audience didn’t. Back then, films were silent – who knew? Well, they weren’t really silent; there was always a live musical score playing with the film, there just wasn’t any spoken dialogue. After 1930 it became mandatory for films to be talkies and we rarely have gotten another silent film since then. There are a few films nowadays that pay homage to the silent era of filmmaking by making an actual silent film, like 2013’s The Artist, but mostly a director will just pay homage to them via similar techniques they also used back then, think of this year’s The Sisters Brothers, which I, by the way, loved immensely. The transition from silence to sound was incredibly difficult for quite a lot of actors and they all dealt with it in different ways. Let’s explore how sound was introduced to film in the first place, and how Charlie Chaplin used it in his first “talkie” City Lights.
A Brief Introduction to the History of Sound in Film
A long road had to be traveled before sound was introduced in film. The ambition to create a perfect illusion of reality had always been there, but there was always an obstacle blocking the way. For one, synchronizing sound to the images projected turned out to be quite the hassle, but also the amplification of sound was a problem. It would be rather annoying to watch a film where the dialogue didn’t line up with the things the actors were saying, and it would be even more annoying for the people in the back who couldn’t hear what was being said in the first place. In 1894 Edison already invented a very primitive version to sync sound to film, but he never perused this idea because he wanted to focus on his other invention, the kinetophone. This was a box type thing with two holes in it at the top through which you could look and see a short film being played. This film was then accompanied by a score that you could listen to via an early type of earbuds. Throughout the years, people continued to experiment with sound and how exactly they’d be able to sync it up to film, but never really managed to figure it out.
Then Lee de Forest came along in 1923 who had the brilliant idea to print sound on the pellicule of the film itself while everything was being filmed. This technique was cleverly called the “sound on film”-technique, oppose to another one popular at the time which involved discs. Due to de Forest’s idea, the syncing problem was solved. Sound and film were recorded simultaneously and practically stuck together, so even if the film would stutter, so would the sound. The sound would stay in sync with what was shown. He was inspired by Alexander Bell’s optical registration of soundwaves and applied a similar technique to the one that Bell used for telephones to be able to print sound on pellicule. However, it would still take a few years before we’d finally get a talking picture since people just weren’t all that interested in it. A handful of studios already made short clips of variety show actors talking, though no one went to see them. If people wanted to see variety actors talk, they’d go to the theater, not to the movies. Since no one went to see those films, studios eventually stopped making them. Why would they invest in something that wasn’t making them any money while they could make silent films instead that were cranking in loads of it?
The eventual success of talking pictures came thanks to Sam Warner, one of the Warner Brothers, and Al Jolson. Sam Warner had a background in radio and invested a lot of money in researching how they could combine sound and film together. The Warner Brothers Studio then also started to produce short clips with variety show actors talking in them, which would be played before their bigger productions. Around that time, Al Jolson became very popular for his musical act, where he sang slave songs while he was dressed in blackface, which is extremely racist in retrospect but wasn’t seen as such at the time. Warner went to him and asked if he’d like to be filmed performing his act so that people all over the continent could see it, even the ones who weren’t able to go see one of his performances. Al agreed and The Plantation Act was made. This short film became a huge success and The Warner Brothers immediately capitalized on it. They put Al in a film that originally starred George Jessel on whom the story of the film was based in the first place, which eventually turned out to be an enormous profit maker. That film was called The Jazz Singer and it accidentally became the first ever feature-length motion picture in which words were spoken. The intent was that the songs would be synced up, but that the rest would be a traditional silent film, using title cards instead of dialogue. While that might’ve been the goal, Al Jolson thought differently. Instead of stopping right after he’d sung his song, he said his famous catchphrase from Broadway:
“Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet”
These are the first words ever to be spoken in a full-length feature film. It’s is also quite funny that he says “you ain’t heard nothin’ yet” since it’s true. We have not heard anything yet, though we’re going to hear a whole lot of people talking from this point on, but not in this film, however. After he’s said these words, the film resumes back to its silent self, only for Al Jolson to go ignore the script once again when he decides to suddenly have a conversation with the actress of his mother, who had no clue what to respond to the nonsense Jolson was babbling on about, after which the film would go silent again, this time until the end of its runtime.
Because of the success of The Jazz Singer, every studio started to pump out talking pictures. Even films that were supposed to be silent features were changed mid-production so that they featured talking dialogue. Studios made it a big selling point to find out what your favorite film star sounded like. Some stars even lost their fame because their voice didn’t match their face, their voice wasn’t nice to listen to, they didn’t speak English or they just didn’t think that talkies were their thing. Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford belong to the latter group. They both made films with sound, after which they retreated as they felt like film had evolved into a different kind of medium than the one they fell in love with and mastered. These two had started United Artists together with Griffith and Chaplin, so after they left, the studio wasn’t doing so well. They’d just lost two of their biggest stars and only really had one star remaining; Chaplin. Chaplin, the young, talented man famous for his slapstick comedy and his iconic tramp character. Everyone wanted to know what he sounded like, and then, in 1931, four years – which is a long time – after The Jazz Singer, Chaplin released his first so-called talking picture called City Lights.
City Lights and How it Used Sound
The production of City Lights had already begun in 1928 and it eventually ended filming in 1930. By that time sound had already been introduced so people were generally expecting City Lights to be a talking picture. They were eagerly waiting for the film to start, to discover what Chaplin sounded like, how the infamous tramp character talked, and then the film has the following opening scene:
Which is basically Chaplin’s way of saying “fuck you” to the talking pictures, ridiculing them and making it blatantly clear that the film will in fact not be your ordinary talking picture. In this opening scene, the “dialogue” we hear is actually Chaplin himself using a paper reed mouth instrument. With this ridiculous sound, he does not only make fun of talkies, but he also laughs at people that think highly of themselves and what kind of nonsense they spew on a daily basis by quite literally making it sound like gibberish. While there’s no audible dialogue in the film, it does make use of the synchronization technique that was invented for the talkies. For one, the score written by Chaplin himself that is accompanied with the film was printed directly onto the pellicule role, synchronizing it with the scene taking place, which wasn’t the case with films that came out before 1927.
Later on in the film, there’s another case of clear synchronization at a party scene where Chaplin’s Tramp character swallows a whistle which causes it to make a sound, every time he breathes out. Chaplin knew that a whistle sound alone would not be sufficient enough to build a whole gag around, as it would get quite boring after a while. So even though he might start the gag off that way, he eventually builds on it. At first, he’s disrupting the party every time he hiccups but soon starts to attract dogs, making the situation more and more absurd as time goes on, though it is always his mannerisms that make the scene as funny as it is. He’s used sound as a tool for comedy, in service of his mime, rather than have sound be the centerpiece of it all. Here’s the scene in question, it’s hilarious:
It was a risky decision to make City Lights a silent film, though certainly one that Chaplin had his fair share of arguments for. His character, the tramp, was known for his over-exaggerated movements and silly stunts. The comedy lied in the things he did, rather than in the things he said. Giving this character a voice would take away from the physical comedy, the mime, which was exactly what the character stood for, so by making it a sound film, he’d strip this well-known character from its most fundamental aspect. Once he talks, he’d no longer be the mime artist we used to love. This character’s humor just wouldn’t work in a talkie and Charlie was well aware of this. That’s also why the one time this character makes some noise, it’s not his voice but rather a whistle that he’s swallowed and it’s still his gestures that are the main form of comedy. Sound is merely used as a tool for comedy instead of it being the gag itself.
Furthermore, by making it a sound film, Chaplin would drastically reduce the number of people that’d be able to see his film. With silent films, you could reach a large audience. People from all over the world could see it since most of the story was told visually, which is the most universal language there is. The only thing that’d have to change were title cards, though that’s an easy fix. With sound films, however, it’s a lot harder than switching out a few title cards. Dubbing was yet to be invented and subtitles weren’t something people were desiring as they’d just come from a period where they already had to read to understand the film, so what else is left? Well, for some films they’d just record it in multiple languages. If the star was able to speak different languages – which often were the case, as lots of foreign actors had migrated to America prior to the introduction of sound – they had to play the character twice, once in English and once in their native language. A whole new crew was brought on board as well and the film was basically re-made with a different audience in mind. However, being the perfectionist Chaplin was, if he’d made the sound film, I’m quite sure he wouldn’t have let anyone else remake his film in another language. This would mean that there would only be the English version available, limiting the film’s audience to English speaking people. Outside of ruining the Tramp character, it would also be a stupid idea because of how popular he was outside of the USA. Everyone knew who he was; he was quite literally the most well-known person living at that point in time. In France, they even had a different name for him, Charlot since he was well-liked over there.
While there had always been the ambition to combine sound and film together, it took quite some time before they finally managed to do so. Even when they eventually did, there weren’t a lot of people interested. It wasn’t until the extremely popular The Jazz Singer came out that people started to like it, after which studios hurried to pump out a bunch of talkies. The sudden switch of silent films to talking features was difficult for quite a lot of actors. Not every actor felt comfortable with this change and there were more than a few whose voice just wasn’t fit for acting. People started to grow curious what their favorite stars sounded like, but more importantly, what the most famous actor at the time, Charlie Chaplin sounded like. Instead of pleasing the audience, Chaplin did what was wisest and made a silent film that starts of by poking fun at talkies. He does, however, utilize sound with comedic purposes, though it’s more of a tool than the core of the joke itself. By keeping the film silent, he stays true to the character of the Tramp, which wouldn’t have worked in a talkie due to his form of comedy being mime. It all just goes to show what kind of balls and talent Chaplin had to release a silent film in a time where people were expecting a talkie, and still manage to have it be received extremely well. Even today It’s perceived as a masterpiece, with which I full heartedly agree.
David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson, Film History: An Introduction (McGraw-Hill)
Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer:
Poster for In the Park: