Charlie Chaplin was one of the first true artists in motion pictures during the silent era. He wrote, directed, produced and starred in many of his silent era films. By the early 1930s, Chaplin defied the popular trend of sound film and purposely made his 1931 gem “City Lights” a silent film, with conventional title cards that provided bits of written dialogue and simple pieces of narrative information. His only compromise was that he wrote a complete musical score for the film and allowed mostly humorous sound effects and noises to be used to accent the funny moments.
In a New York Times essay in 1931, Chaplin clearly made his case for the silent film when he wrote, “Because the silent or nondialogue picture has been temporarily pushed aside in the hysteria attending the introduction of speech by no means indicates it is extinct or that the motion picture screen has seen the last of it. “City Lights” is evidence of this.”
“The silent picture first of all, is a universal means of expression; talking pictures necessarily have a limited field, they are held down to a particular tongue of particular races.” It’s a medium “that is universal in its utility.” “Action is more generally understood than words. The lift of an eyebrow however faint may convey more than a hundred words.” Basically, Chaplin’s message is the talkie/sound film attempted to take away the art of the pantomime.
Chaplin subtitles “City Lights”—“a comedy romance in pantomime.” His story tells the simple tale of his little Tramp character who meets a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) on the streets of a big city. She mistakenly thinks he’s a wealthy, established gentleman because she hears fancy cars around her and the Tramp, avoiding the traffic jam, walks through the door of one of the cars. He can only buy one flower because he is basically broke.
Later that evening under a city bridge the Tramp saves a depressed drunk millionaire (Harry Myers) from attempting suicide by removing a rope from the man’s neck that he has tied to a large rock. The expressive title card reads: “Be brave! Face life!”
But it’s Chaplin’s facial expressions that convey the scene’s emotional intensity. When the rope then gets tangled around the Tramp and he is thrown into the river, it’s the rich guy who rescues the Tramp; then another title card explains, “I’m cured. You’re my friend for life!”
The rich guy treats him to dinner and takes him home—but the next morning the sober millionaire doesn’t remember a thing. The next day the Tramp borrows the rich guy’s car, encounters the flower girl again, and using some of the money given to him the previous night buys her entire basket of flowers and drives her home.
Chaplin’s narrative repeats similar slapstick episodes of the Tramp’s encounters with the wealthy guy, who’s generous and friendly when he’s drunk, and nasty when he’s sober, with tender scenes with the Tramp and the blind flower girl, as the Tramp tries all sorts of ways to earn money to help the girl (becoming a street cleaner and even a boxer for an evening), eventually paying for an operation that regains her sight. All along Chaplin’s Depression-era theme emphasizes the simple goodness of the poorer folks and the foolish values of the wealthy.
One of the finest, most passionate scenes of the silent era acting occurs at the very end, when after the now-sighted flower girl, who runs her own flower shop, anxiously awaits the rich gentleman who may have helped her. The Tramp had been chased by police who think he’s robbed the millionaire and two street kids are harassing him. Suddenly the Tramp notices the girl in her shop window; their eyes meet, as she gestures to the flower in his hand. She’s amused by the poorly dressed man and hands him a flower, instantly remembering his touch. As her hands clasp the Tramp’s hand, the title card simply reads, “You?”
Chaplin would make one more silent film, with sound effects and musical score in 1936 called “Modern Times,” by 1940 he was forced to convert to talking and all sound with “The Great Dictator”. No other major silent film would be widely distributed until 2011 when French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius made “The Artist,” a fabulous silent film that won the Oscar for Best Picture.