The Sound of City Lights


My Charlie Chaplin “hand turkey”.

As  I have mentioned, Kyle and I like to watch old movies, and we are working through the AFI top 100.  A few weeks ago, “City Lights” finally came in from the library.   We had been on the waiting list for – I kid you not – a whole year.  I didn’t realize it would be that popular!  Let me tell you, it was hilarious and well worth the wait.

In City Lights, Charlie Chaplin plays his famous character, “The Tramp”.  In this film, the Tramp falls in love with a blind flower girl who mistakes him for a millionaire.  Throughout the course of the film he tries to find ways to make money in order to woo her and help her pay for a surgery to repair her sight.  He also befriends an actual millionaire, who only recalls that they are pals when he is drunk.  Basically the people that he befriends and loves cannot see him for who he truly is.  Chaplin often uses the Tramp to explore somewhat dark or political themes in a lighthearted way with lots of slapstick comedy, and City Lights was no exception.

Before I dig into the sound of City Lights, I should probably mention the transition from silent films to “talkies”.  The first film with sound was “The Jazz Singer”, which premiered in 1927.  The Jazz Singer did not have talking throughout, rather, mainly just the singing was synced to the actors.  Otherwise, they still used title cards for most of the dialog.  After The Jazz Singer was released, talkies became instantly popular, and silent films declined rapidly.

Chaplin had built his fame around silent films, and pantomime in particular.  Through this medium, he could reach international audiences.  Because he did not use spoken dialog, he was not limited by the English language.  (In fact, the first time you hear the Tramp’s voice is in Chaplin’s next film, “Modern Times” – the Tramp sings a tune which is entirely gibberish.  So funny and fitting for the Tramp!)  He worried about what would happen if he gave the Tramp a voice.  Would it make the character less funny?  Would it change the audience’s opinion of the films, who are used to Charlie Chaplin’s miming?  Or would it alienate his international fans?

City Lights was his last “silent” film, but he did take advantage of the synchronization technologies by putting in his own musical score and sound effects – and even poked fun at the popular talkies.  City Lights was Chaplin’s first film after The Jazz Singer was released, so I think it probably gave him anxiety to try and captivate audiences that desired to see those talking films.  So he was very careful and clever with how he treated the sound in City Lights.  First, the music which was composed to fit the action of the film, as well as introduce musical themes for each of the characters, so it took on the very important roll of helping move the story along.  Having music that fits the action of the film was still new with talkies – it was all synchronized to the film (just as the dialog would be).   There are not a lot of sound effects in the film, but when Chaplin uses them, he uses them deliberately.

Here is a funny clip, which shows how Chaplin decided to treat dialog for this film:

This scene in the beginning of the film where rich and important people are dedicating a statue and making political speeches.  Instead of dialog, Chaplin used a kazoo sound effect for the speeches making the scene humorous, and poking fun at the popularity of talkies.  Another fun sound effect was the in the boxing scene, where the Tramp tries to win money by boxing.  The music again is playing with the action, but in addition, there is a boxing bell which really gives the scene life.  I’m not embedding the video because it’s so fun to see in context, but if you can’t resist, you can see the scene here.

I highly recommend seeing this movie, especially with a friend or in a group.  It’s too funny not to share laughs!   It is also a great family film – many children would  find the Tramp’s antics and pantomime fun and understandable.  While you are watching, try to notice the music and sound effects.  Do you think they were effective in this film?