[Modern Times et al.]
dir. Charlie Chaplin (United States, 1936)
"Take it easy and avoid excitement."
The silent film brings nothing but entertainment—a pie in the face, a fop being dragged by a bear out of a department store—all events governed by fate and timing not language and argument. The Tramp never changes the opinion of the policeman. The truncheon swings, the Tramp scuttles through a corner window and disturbs the fat lady’s ablutions. These comedies are nightmares. The audience emits horrified laughter as Chaplin, blindfolded, rollerskates near the edge of the unbalconied mezzanine. No one shouts to warn him. He cannot talk or listen. North America is still without language; gestures, work and bloodlines are the only currency.
– Micahel Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion, p. 34
– Micahel Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion, p. 34
On September 3, 1949, Life magazine published a column by James Agee entitled “Comedy’s Greatest Era.” The article was Agee’s long-conceived tribute to the greatest comedians of silent cinema—Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin. Agee’s account of their beyond-rigorous work ethic and his reverently written reconstructions of some of the comics’ funniest gags belied his love of an art-form long relegated to the dustbins of history. From a young age, Agee had been devoted to silent comedy. To him, silent comics could emote more eloquently through their sheer physicality than voiced comedians could ever manage through their verbal wit. “Silent comics discovered beauties of motion,” he wrote, “which are hopelessly beyond the reach of words.” In the Life column, he posited that the high point of film comedy had been reached twenty years prior, and that modern sound film successors were merely pretenders to the throne: “To put it unkindly the only thing wrong with screen comedy today is that it takes place on a screen which talks. Because it talks, the only comedians who ever mastered the screen can’t work, for they can’t combine their comic style with talk.”
As talkies came to occupy a commanding position in early 1920s cinema, Agee grew frustrated. In mid-April 1929, while a student at Harvard, he wrote to a friend, opining his reaction to the advent of sound in film. He imagined the new technology’s potential benefit, but felt guilty for even entertaining the thought of betraying his beloved silent movies:
I’m trying to write a paper on the possibilities of the talkies—which I despise. Nevertheless, great things could be done with them… One is that they could be a fulfillment of all that Blake wanted to do—great pictures, poetry, color and music—the other is the chance they offer Joyce and his followers. I should think they’d go wild over the possibilities of it.
By the time the Life article was published, Chaplin in particular had become Agee’s muse. He was the measure by which Agee evaluated the shortcomings of sound cinema. Quoting director Mack Sennet, Agee wrote, “Of Chaplin, [Sennet] says simply, ‘Oh, well he’s just the greatest artist that ever lived.” For Agee there was no doubt of Chaplin’s nonpareil rank, or of the superiority of pantomime over dialogue. The Life article quickly found success. It was widely credited with reviving interest in silent film comedy. W.H. Auden called it “the most remarkable event in American journalism today.” Keaton attributed his renewed popularity to the article. Most interesting, though, was the influence the piece would have in future characterizations of Chaplin—as the fool who spoke universally by not speaking, as the lasting holdout against sound cinema:
The only man who really survived the flood was Chaplin, the only one who was rich, proud and popular enough to afford to stay silent. He brought out two of his greatest nontalking comedies, City Lights and Modern Times, in the middle of an avalanche of talk, spoke gibberish and, the closing moments, plain English in The Great Dictator.
The phenomenon of Chaplin aside, most silent comics suffered career-ending setbacks with the advent of the ‘talkies.’ For Agee, this was tantamount to tragedy. Cinema’s greatest performances, he thought, were invariably soundless. For instance, in his column, Agee wrote what is now a classic, oft-quoted description of the final moment of Chaplin’s City Lights, when the once-blind flower girl suddenly recognizes that the benefactor to whom she owes her love is not a millionaire but actually the Little Tramp—Chaplin’s splayfooted, potty love-struck, Dickensesque vagabond—his most frequent and famous character. Here, Agee’s eulogy for silent cinema reaches its apex: “It is enough to shrivel the heart to see, and it is the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in films.”
Agee was quick to label Chaplin the hero of silent comedy, bearing the medium as Sisyphus bears his stone—vainly. It’s a mythology of Chaplin that has since been perpetuated by historians and critics alike—one that was recently adapted and fictionalized with 2012’s Academy Award-winning The Artist. “Chaplin was anti-sound,” Agee contended, fundamental to his aesthetic was the axiomatic belief that pantomime was the purest form of on-screen performance—that silence was the only true way Chaplin could convey, as Agee put it, “the deepest emotion, the richest and most poignant poetry.” Not unlike his films, Chaplin’s opposition to sound has turned, almost apocryphally, into a romantic story—one in which the artist shuns the technological in favor of the somatic and the pure. Agee’s belief that Chaplin opposed sound strictly to maintain the integrity of his art has become standard fare for many Chaplin historians. For instance, as biographer David Robinson notes, “Chaplin’s pantomime required a great deal of subtlety and timing—elements that were steamrolled by the barrage of words in early talkies.”
Although maintaining the ‘purity of silent film’ may have come into play for Chaplin, I believe it has been overemphasized by observers like Agee. Chaplin was never absolutely aesthetically opposed to sound in the same way Agee was. No—Chaplin’s resistance was as much practical as it was ideological; whatever archetypal role Agee cast him in was largely dramatized—as is common (and often wonderful) in much of the writer’s other work. That’s not to say Agee’s understanding of Chaplin is misleading, but we ought to heed other historiographical sources, like Robinson’s seminal biography, for more accurate characterizations of Chaplin and his opinion of sound film.
First off, Agee completely overlooks the economic circumstances Chaplin was facing in the ’30s. The addition of spoken dialogue to film meant an increase in planning time and production costs, both in order to equip his studio and to dub prints for foreign markets. Chaplin, who by the 1930s was financing his own films, would’ve had to bear the financial brunt of a failed effort in the talkies (sound films were, on average, three times more expensive than silent films in 1930). Whereas studios could bounce back from disastrous projects with other releases, Chaplin likely felt he had to guarantee a bankable first effort in the sound era if he were to continue serious filmmaking. Furthermore, given that his expensive divorce from Lita Grey was resolved around the same time, the argument that Chaplin’s financial situation at the onset of sound film was quite tenuous is all the more compelling.
There was also the risk of losing his audience. Chaplin needed only to look at the likes of Keaton in the 1920s, who, then under contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, had made the transition. However, the loss of his independent status, coupled with his worsening alcoholism, left him under the direction of studio management and their projects; he found himself playing second fiddle to Jimmy Durante, a comic whose gifts were better suited for talkies. Chaplin could’ve followed Harold Lloyd’s example. Lloyd found success in the talkies after testing the waters for his speaking appeal by dubbing an already completed 1929 silent feature Welcome Danger, though at a great expense. Chaplin, however, took no such risks. As Agee noted, Chaplin’s status afforded him the unique position of being “the one [silent comic] who was rich, proud and popular enough to stay silent.”
Moving to sound would’ve also meant losing his global appeal. As Chaplin once wrote to Time in 1931, “The silent picture, first, is a universal means of expression. Talking pictures necessarily have a limited field, they are held down to the particular tongues of particular races.” Using dialogue would necessitate translating his work—subtitling and/or dubbing. With the increasing importance of foreign revenues to offset already high production costs, this meant maintaining profit margins would’ve been even more difficult. Additionally losing universal appeal threatened Chaplin’s ability to communicate the social/political agenda that underlay most of his work. From the very start of his career, he was a political filmmaker, David Denby notes, “with a documentarian’s enthusiasm for representing the big events of the era, including the anarchist provocations, as in Dough and Dynamite, or World War I, as in Shoulder Arms.” Chaplin understood that his genius extended only as far as his unsubtitled pantomimed antics—the pre-Babel language that gave Chaplin his international stardom and universal influence.
Part of Chaplin’s appeal to Agee was the comic’s communalist philosophy (Agee himself was a staunch socialist), but this never comes up in his praise of silent film (invariably because no one would’ve wanted to read one of Agee’s social diatribes in the midst of a praise of comedy). Still, this is another thing Agee overlooked, at least on paper. Chaplin must have known his social agenda would have had broader appeal through pantomime. Pantomime was an easier pill to swallow, as it refused to perorate, signaling deference to an audience and dramatizing its limitations so it could be more readily accepted. Pantomime was, moreover, not subject to mistranslation. Notably, when Chaplin’s first talkie The Great Dictator was dubbed into Japanese, an opening line in his final speech was mistranslated. “In this world there’s room for everyone,” Chaplin should’ve began, “and the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone.” The Japanese dub was barely different—“There is a richness in the world that can care for all humanity.”  Nevertheless, the variation was enough for Chaplin to spend thousands of dollars to recall the film and force it to be redubbed correctly. According to A.M. Nornés it’s unclear why Chaplin was so precise in his wording. We can speculate that he was worried about losing his ability to address the world at once. After all, the original speech constitutes what’s likely the most famous oration in cinema, and still perhaps the best, in its stark, sanctifying denunciation of statist language and dictatorial ambition.
Furthermore, we know Agee’s characterization of Chaplin as anti-sound was overstated simply because Chaplin did in fact use sound. In addition to 1940’s The Great Dictator, Limelight (1947) and Monsieur Verdoux (1952) were both sound films—though the latter came out after Agee’s column. What’s more, The Gold Rush, the 1925 film which Chaplin frequently said he wanted to be remembered by, was re-released in 1942 with new narration overdubbed to help clarify to his audience the tone which he felt had been lost in his antics. As Richard Brody notes: “Chaplin’s voice-over—sometimes a commentary and sometimes an impersonation of characters’ lines—unified the movie’s tone, turned its third-person staging into a first-person reminiscence.” This should be evidence enough that Chaplin saw a purpose for sound. If it’s not, we need only look at his next to last so-called silent film from 1931, City Lights, which featured a synchronized score—composed by Chaplin himself—and sound effects, most famously of the Tramp’s swallowed whistle. Even more saliently, in 1936 Chaplin followed City Lights with his final silent feature, Modern Times, in which sound is used quite generously despite the lack of dialogue.
Actually, when Chaplin first conceived of the Modern Times, he planned to use dialogue as well. Among the comedian’s records is a partially written scenario, which outlines the plot of Modern Times from the opening scene through the department store sequence, and includes significant dialogue. Several pages of this script have since been made publicly available. They feature what would have been the Tramp’s verbal debut. Chaplin had intended to present the Tramp’s dialogue as simple and soft-spoken, not all that unlike that which Chaplin would employ with his barber protagonist in The Great Dictator. In preparation for Modern Times, Chaplin’s studio reconfigured its open-air stages so they could be used for sound (according to Robinson, it was the last Hollywood studio to do so). Anticipating a script, Chaplin began doing voice tests in December 1934 and shot mock-ups of the jail scenes with dialogue. For whatever reason, though, Chaplin abandoned the script. “He was evidently dissatisfied with the results,” Robinson notes, suggesting the early rushes may not have measured up to his standards, or that the comedian’s techniques—highly improvisational and subject to rapid changes—proved far too varied to limit his movements to the vicinity of a hidden microphone. Still, Chaplin’s flirtation with dialogue in Modern Times demonstrates that even early on he was less concerned with changing mediums and more with the impending obsolescence of his Tramp. Indeed Chaplin made every effort possible to give the Tramp a voice. And when he finally took the plunge into sound with The Great Dictator, he reflected upon the consequence of finally capitulating to the medium: “I had thought of possible voices for the Tramp—whether he should speak in monosyllable or just mumble. But it was no use. If I talked I would become like any other comedian.” The silent format was the Tramp’s natural canvas. It offered a guaranteed following of fans, and Chaplin banked on his longtime popularity to carry the film’s financial prospects.
Of course, some dialogue made it into the final cut of Modern Times. Allen Garcia, playing the president of the Electro Steel Corp in the opening sequence, received the dubious honor of speaking the first dialogue in a Chaplin picture. As Walter Kerr observes in Silent Clowns, this may have been done out of cynicism. Garcia’s lines, as well as other spoken parts in the film, are almost always transmitted via electronic mediums—televisions, loudspeakers. The effect gives characters a cold and impersonal tone, which, we might interpret, signifies two apparent themes: the breakdown of individual relationships and the dehumanizing effect of machines on people. We see this when the salesmen of the Bellow’s Feeding Machine use a phonograph as an on-site spokesperson and later, in the jail scenes, when the Tramp tries to cover-up the echoing noise of his rumbling stomach by turning on a radio.
In contrast to this denunciation of sound, however, there is the café scene where the Tramp, hired as a waiter, is required to stand in for a tenor. He writes the words on his shirt cuffs, but the cuffs fly off, and he is obliged to improvise a song in a wonderful, mock-Italian gibberish. This was the first and only time the world would hear speech from the Tramp. It was Chaplin’s most thoughtful cop-out. Without a single intelligible word, the Tramp spoke freely on the stage without truly opening himself up to the movie audience. Following Agee’s line of reasoning, one might read this as a joke within a joke—as if Chaplin was mocking sound cinema, showing that gibberish is just as understandable as dialogue. Certainly, this could’ve been his intent—it would have fit with his other cynical uses of dialogue—but what’s more likely is that Chaplin employed gibberish simply allow the Tramp to save face, so his one mystery could remain intact. Interestingly, before the Tramp begins his gibberish number, the singing waiters who precede him can be distinctly heard. This is a notable moment of contrast—as the Tramp rehearses offstage with the help of inter-titles, the song from the café continues to be audible. Clearly, the Tramp’s world is one of virtual silence, even as takes to the stage and crosses into the new medium. Julian Smith echoes this idea: “Chaplin’s fabled resistance to sound appears to have been a game in which he talked endlessly about why he would not speak in movies while going about the business of making genuine sound films that tell us far more about the possibilities of film sound than most of the competition.”
To Agee’s dismay, it seems that Chaplin fully intended to make the transition to sound. Once he could afford it, he just had to see his Little Fellow off the screen first. As Chaplin was advancing in age (he was 47 the year of Modern Times’ release), it would not be long before he would be forced to abandon the sprightly man he famously portrayed. Fittingly, he makes his cinematic exit at the end of the film by walking off cheerfully into an optimistically endless horizon. This was Chaplin’s Tramp: a daydreaming exile determined to find his way home through the diasporic chaos of the 20th century. To this day Agee’s article remains the high watermark for any discussion about the silent era. The best actors continue to ask themselves if their words hinder or enhance their ability to communicate, if Agee was right in arguing that Chaplin communicated the deepest emotions because he was not limited by spoken language. Surely Agee was right to perceive this in Chaplin’s performances, even if he was partially wrong in characterizing this as Chaplin’s overall intent.
Later in his life Agee abandoned his prolific career as a writer to promote a film script he had written specifically for Chaplin’s Tramp. Reportedly, Chaplin met with Agee on a number of occasions to consider the script—a post-atomic tale in which the Tramp silently stumbles the earth as humanity’s only survivor. For unknown reasons, Chaplin eventually turned down the script. Perhaps Chaplin simply felt the Tramp had already had his proper ending with Modern Times. Perhaps he thought that Agee’s script, lacking sound or dialogue, was too archaic for the period, too quiet. Either way, Chaplin’s feelings toward sound cinema continue to elude us—much like the rest of his character.
 J. Wranovics (2005), Chaplin and Agee (New York: Palgrave Macmillan), 112.
 J. Agee (1949), “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” Life. September 3. Reprinted online by MIT, 4.
 J. Agee (2000), “Agee on Film: Criticism and Comment on the Movies” (New York: Modern Library), inside flap.
 Keaton later showed his own appreciation for the article in the very first paragraph of his autobiography, My Wonderful World of Slapstick, by quoting the Life article’s discussion of his famous impassive visage, his Great Stone Face: “That kindly critic, the late James Agee, described my face as ranking ‘almost with Lincoln’s as an early American archetype, it was haunting, handsome, and almost beautiful’…I sure was pleased.” Source: Wranovics 2005, 14.
 Agee (1949), 7.
 Ibid., 8.
 D. Robinson (1994), Chaplin: His Life and Art (New York: Da Capo Press), 588.
 Ibid., 561.
 A feature sound film cost approximately $366,000 compared to $126,000 for a silent film. Source: F. Hanssen (2002), “Revenue-Sharing in Movie Exhibition and the Arrival of Sound,” Economic Inquiry 40, no. 3, 384.
 Robinson (1994), 589
 Wranovics (2005), 152.
 Agee (1949), 5.
 From Wranovics (2005), 120.
 D. Denby (2014), “Charlie Chaplin’s Talking Pictures,” New Yorker, January 4.
 A.M. Nornés (2007), Cinema Babel: Translating Global Cinema (U. of Minnesota Press), 242.
 Patton (1970) is the one hard contender here.
 R. Brody (2013), “Chaplin’s Perfectionism,” New Yorker, August 5.
 Robinson (1994), 652.
 Ibid., 820.
 W. Kerr (1990), Silent Clowns (New York: De Capo Press), 8.
 From Wranovics (2005), 150.
 Ibid., 45.