The Method Gears



City Lights poster


The Silent Decision: Resisting the Talkie

The "talking picture," or talkie, was the great revolution of the film industry in the 1930s. Movie posters advertised with phrases such as "With Words!" and "All Talking!" Chaplin, however, did not share the enthusiasm. He denounced talkies as a passing fad, saying in 1931, "I give the talkies six monthes more. At the most a year. Then they're done" (qtd Robinson 469). He later amended his position:

Dialogue may or may not have a place in comedy... Dialogue does not have a place in the sort of comedies I make... Dialogue, to my way of thinking, always slows action, because action must wait upon words.

Chaplin's films of the thirties, 1931's City Lights and 1936's Modern Times, had a new tenor. The fact that they were silent films produced during a decade which glorified the advances made possible by new technology marked them as films of resistance. Of course, the thirties were also a time of resistance. New technology was feared and criticized at the same time that it was celebrated. Chaplin's protest against the influence of machine technology on human life found succint thematic expression in the film Modern Times. The earlier film City Lights evidenced protest in practice.

Modern Times poster



Chaplin downplayed the social content of his films in the publicity (Gunning 42). As a public figure, however, he was outspoken about political issues. Chaplin's reluctance to speak about the social content of his films may be attributed to his protectiveness with regard to his private life. Filmmaking was for Chaplin an intensely personal venture. He controlled every aspect of his films: he produced, directed, starred in and composed the music for virtually all the First National and United Artists films. Chaplin was among the first stars to experience constant public scrutiny. His every appearance was cause for a crowd, if not a riot. And while he courted his star status--Chaplin invited Albert Einstien to the premiere of City Lights and met with Gandhi during a 1930-31 world tour--he also wearied of being always on display.

In the films of the thirties, the Tramp seemed to take on the weight of the world in a way he had not in the earlier films. His actions acquired more significance: when he steals money in City Lights it is not just because the money is there. This transition into a more "serious" mode was an outgrowth of Chaplin's personal difficulties with life in the public eye and a reflection of society's having to cope with the Depression.

The thirties marked the end of the Little Tramp. His last appearance in Modern Times gave the Tramp a voice to sing his last words, but by this point it was clear that Charlie's place was not in a world bent on becoming increasingly modern.

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