Sunday, 18 November 2012

Silence Mightier Than Words- Chaplin in Talkies

Charlie Chaplin stuck to his theories for a long time. In the talkies era, he made two silent movies- City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936); although the latter had some talkies part, including a song and dance scene by the genius himself, it can safely be clubbed under the silent movies.
Chaplin made 5 talkie movies in his lifetime, out of which in 4 of them- The Great Dictator(1940), Monsieur Verdoux(1947), Limelight(1952) and A King In New York(1957)- he was the protagonist and one- his last movie and the only colour movie of his lifetime-A Countess from Hong Kong(1967), he directed and played a small cameo.

Now, amongst those 5 Talkies, except for TGD, the other four could not see much of commercial success. Now, for Chaplin, who dominated the silent era of motion pictures, the transformation into the talkies was challenging. The major reason was he had already attained International success and was popular in countries who did not speak English. It was his own cautious decision that if he made a Talkie, there would be no Tramp in that. He maintained that stance, and barring a couple of minutes of song and dance in Modern Times, the Tramp never uttered any word on screen.
The Great Dictator was Chaplin’s first Talkie and was a blockbuster. However, the barber character resembled a lot with the Tramp although Chaplin never admitted that. TGD was a big hit, even though America was not into World War by that time. It seemed that the success from the silent times would be replicated in Talkies also by Chaplin but then somehow, he lost the pulse altogether after that. What went wrong? Did the movies have problems or there was something more? Let us see one by one the other four unsuccessful Talkies ventures of Charlie Chaplin.
Monsieur Verdoux was an American movie, set in France during the Great Depression days. It was about a person who had lost his job in Economic depression and in order to run his family took a strange job of getting married with rich ladies and killing them to inherit money. It was a bold concept and many found the movie to be too dark. Although, Verdoux is shown being hanged in the end of the movie, critics thought that the movie was promoting criminal mentalities in the society in the backdrop of financial crunch. Second World War was just over, and it was initial phase of the Cold War age, and America was not ready for such a movie. Even Chaplin knew that this movie was going to be bold and would be facing critical brickbats. My take, however, for this movie is it was very casually made by Chaplin. It was his first character which did not have even any remote resemblance with the Tramp, and Chaplin showed somehow lack of involvement.  The character should have been developed in a way so that it should have gathered sentimental support from the audience and give some sort of justification to this desperate effort of killing people, which Chaplin could not. Instead of creating the depth in the character, he went into unnecessary detailing of committing crimes and elongated scenes. At the end, you don’t feel sympathy for Verdoux, which I think was one of the main reasons why the movie did not click. There have been quite a few movies where the protagonist had negative shades, but MV could not justify the cause or desperation of the negativity, which perhaps a Godfather could. Also, it was socio-economically pretty “loud”; now, Charlie had been verbose in his messages even in the silent days or in TGD as well, but MV somehow, broke the balance of message and entertainment and got off-balance more.

It seems, Chaplin had taken this lesson from MV’s failure, and decided to come out of this socio political overdose in his last 4-5 movies and make a human drama. Limelight (1952) is a true classic, a masterpiece in its own and for me the best Chaplin has ever done. The movie reflected the honest effort, the pain, and the hard work Charlie had put behind it- be it the script, the music, the direction or the acts. Right from giving his son- Sydney Chaplin a substantial role to calling his old mate of silent era, Buster Keaton for a gem of an act towards the end, Chaplin had surely wanted this to be his Swan Song. Limelight should have been a befitting farewell to this amazing man, but it could not. An American movie set in 1914 London; Limelight was denied a release in the US. The reason has been oft discussed and we all know it very well. But, without a release, there was no reason of Limelight to be commercially successful. It was given a release 20 years afterwards in 1972, and was given Academy Awards as well, but all were too late by then. By the time people could realize what a masterpiece Limelight was, Chaplin had already retired from the movies and counting his last days in Switzerland where he breathed his last in 1976. Limelight was perhaps the longest movie of Chaplin, having around 130 minutes of runtime. Claire Bloom gave her lifetime performance as the leading lady to Chaplin. And the old man gave his lifetime show here as Calvaro, the Tramp Comedian of Nineteenth Century British Theatres. A drama of Calvaro’s success to failure to oblivion- from where the movie starts- to again his bounce back after several attempts to give that one lifetime act in the final scene which causes his death on the stage- Limelight covers shades of brilliance which no other Chaplin movie had ever done.  Calvaro had inspired many such characters later in Hollywood and in other industries also.
Unfortunately, the denial of release of Limelight gave rise to the bitterness between Chaplin and the States and he decided to leave America forever. Now, that bitterness also gave rise to an eagerness in Chaplin to spoof America’s impatience towards Communism. It would have been better if he had kept that wish within himself and not make A King In New York in 1957 in UK.  AKINY is an excellent movie if you don’t consider the fact that it was made by Charlie Chaplin. The basic problem with the movie remains that it could not make the caricature larger than life like the way The Great Dictator was done. Also, the intolerance towards Communism in America did not seem to be too big a problem that time as compared to Fascism or Nazism during the World War days. Anyways, since AKINY was denied a release in America, it also failed to gather too much commercially, although it ran successfully in the UK. I personally rate this as a good movie, some of the scenes are really funny and we find Chaplin in his old form (especially the Whiskey ad scene). It makes good spoof of the American paparazzi, music, violent movies and loud society of those days.  But, then again, Chaplin had a score to settle with the US but the audience did not. Many feel, Chaplin made this movie in his desperation to politically spoof America and not out of his natural passion of movie making. This reflected in the movie as well. The sets were underprepared, lots of indoor shootings (obviously, as he had to recreate New York in London!) and constrained budget made A King In New York stick to the “Good movie” grade and not excel to the level of a classic.
A Countess from Hong Kong (1967) was conceived by Chaplin way back in the 30s. This movie along with A Woman of Paris (1923), remain the only movies of Chaplin where he did not play the protagonist. In both the movies, he played cameos for blink and you miss roles.  Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren played the major roles in this only Color movie of Chaplin; from the silent movie debut in 1914 to the color movie in 1967, Chaplin indeed covered a lot of ground. The movie was made in UK. I wish Chaplin had not made this, he also perhaps realized that things were getting a bit stretched too far and decided to call it a day after this. The movie had some funny scenes on the ship, but lacked the clever execution Chaplin movies used to have.

The king of silent era was not very successful in the Talkies era. Although, it would be too much of simplifying things if we make this statement without analysing the reasons. One of the five movies he made was a classic and a blockbuster and one more was a true classic which was deprived of commercial success due to other external causes. Rest three were also not thuds by any standard, but perhaps, people had started anticipating more from Chaplin.
Adnoid Hynkel and Calvaro are the only take homes from Chaplin apart from his immortal Tramp.


  1. An in depth analysis & a variety of information indeed....well organised & neatly structured indeed.
    We are not ready yet to fathom Charlie...he was much ahead of my opinion...

    from Supriyo Deb

    1. Many thanks Supriyo Da, talking of Chaplin and your inputs are very precious!! By the way, which one is your most favourite talkie of Chaplin?

  2. Well , I m agree with ur title of article Silence Mightier Than Words- Chaplin in Talkies .I always used to say ‘my silence speakes’. So again remembered my own words by title!
    Citylights being my all time fvrt fantacy (much lovely is climax). Modern Times indeed a grt comment on industrialisation. So both silent gems in talkie era bears grt standards of art.
    For me, I love Charlies silent movies much than talkie(exceptionTGD and L’light)
    The point u mentioned that internationally succeed Chaplin covered all English unaware area is significantally right. Launguage comprehension have limits but gestures are forever. That the reason why C C conquered. I remember this time when once Charlie said to Sir Einstein that”any person of any languages of any country and of any religion can understand me but no person of any languages of any country and of any religion can understand u ”. This is power of mute than word.
    Chaplins TGD was much longer movie and full talkie with all joy and msg provided by pseudo dictator. That last speech by Chaplin is simply superb and grt. Well, though USA that time not was in WW2 but country was frnd of UK against whom Hitler fighting. So its its natural to film (in which Hitler picturized comic man)undergone blockbuster. Those liar democracy supporter USA people always made safe themselves to support any democratic revolution.So liked TGD, one may reason in spite of politics.
    On MV, I agree with u. There is no single similarity of tramp with rascal man. I think though any one criticizes that MV empowering criminal instincts, does not matter . Bcoz in perturbation time like depression , its reality. So we have praise to CC bcoz he exhibited reality through MV. I think , In MV Charlie failed to keep constant his as usual dynamic speed of changing scenes through story and became many times boring. Ur point that we were with no sympathy for criminal at end is also logically pure reason.
    What to say about masterpiece Limelight? Though that movie had such intrinsic strength of story, picture was super powered by Chaplin’s acting and developing that story-seed very powerfully throughout all movie(See one of scene when Calvero inspiring weak dancer with speech which he must have to travel. I know Chaplins objective was not that but can we extract one conclusion from that scene like”people guides the way to others which they have to travel themselves ”? This is human nature all time to direct others.) . Though commercially not proved much successful by reasons, I think film bears eternal value. Chaplin’s greatest work was that declined genius of Limelight(along with darer Dictator!) . If there were no ban by USA, I think Limelight definitely been proved blockbuster.Once Raj Kapoor said ‘my unlucky children are Mera naam joker and Jagte raho’. Reasons for Jokers failure were different .For limelight were different. But both movies having resembling roots proved unfortunate.Grand salute CC for this classic venture.
    As u know, I m hater of New York’s King!! Whats in movie? Why Charlie did this? OK some scenes are best , i also like . One can also see the bitterness in CC’s mind for USA administration in scene where King spreads powerfull water force from pipe to USA committee members, it is symbolic? Definitely , its Charlies symbolic revenge.Its not art. So fans of Charlie must see king considering that this not Charlie’s job, as u said same.
    I have not seen A Countess from Hong Kong.
    Ur article and including observations, conclusions are very beneficial and rich. Great job. Thnx for such fantastic xperience.I think Charlie was for silent era and so he identified for same. Thats why though Hynkel and Calvaro supported the actor, actors original immortal image people love is of innocent tramp, so we always see that image usually.
    Thnk u

    1. City Lights climax is indeed one of the most touching scenes in the Cine History. Personally, I have never been moved so much by a climax except The Bicycle Thieves last scene. Marvellous people they were, miss them so much and the human aspects in the movie whenever I see the video games in the name of movies nowadays!!