Many people called Charlie Chaplin a dinosaur for resisting sound films for so long, but that was really a decision which paid off powerfully. I’ll address this issue more in my series on The Jazz Singer at 90, but to hit one of the main points, many directors and actors who waited until about 1930 ended up with much better films than folks who jumped right in to play with the shiny new toy. They waited to see if this were just a fad or the new way to make movies, and by waiting a few years, they didn’t have to deal with some of the technological problems plaguing the earliest talkies.
Chaplin knew his Tramp character inside and out. This wasn’t just about resisting new technology, but knowing the Tramp would never work in a sound film. That character exists in a world of silence, without speech. Giving the Tramp a voice would’ve killed his character. Can you imagine the Tramp with Chaplin’s very British accent? He had a wonderful voice, but no matter what type of voice he had, any voice would’ve felt wrong on the Tramp.
The one time the Tramp does speak, it’s in a nonsense song near the end of Modern Times (1936). That’s the only kind of speech which keeps his character the same. When he walks off into the sunset with Paulette Goddard at the end of the film, we know it’s goodbye. Just thinking about the ending of that film gives me chills and gets me choked up.
Chaplin always stressed that the Jewish barber of The Great Dictator was NOT the Tramp, but a Tramp-like character. He has several of the Tramp’s mannerisms, and even has the same clothes and cane in a few scenes, but he’s really his own new character. The Tramp was retired in 1936, and now lives in each of us as a beautiful race memory. People all around the world, of all ages, recognize the Tramp, even if they’ve never seen a Chaplin film.
Just the mere fact that the Jewish barber speaks should be a pretty big indicator that this isn’t the Tramp, superimposed into a sound film. The Tramp is a universal character, who exists without the confines of time, sound, and space. The universal, ageless appeal of this character is largely tied up with how silent cinema in general is so personal. Since we only have intertitles to represent speech, we have to imagine for ourselves what people are saying (apart from lip-readers).
It’s also worth noting how sound is used selectively in this film. A number of scenes are essentially like a silent film, and don’t need dialogue to be carried along or understood. Many people making early talkies tried to cram in as much sound as possible, showing off with their shiny new toy instead of understanding the proper, appropriate balance between sound and silence in any given film.
For an example of a sound-era film which does this masterfully, just look at the slaughter of the Third Castle in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985). We don’t need any dialogue or even sound effects to understand what’s going on and get lost in the powerful drama and tension.
On the same note, I do feel it were a tragic mistake how the film industry worldwide abandoned both silent and hybrid films in favor of only talkies. I’m glad we developed the technology to enable sound films, since there are some actors who would never have worked in silent pictures, like the Marx Brothers. There were also some people, like Laurel and Hardy and W.C. Fields, who really needed sound to become even funnier. Some films also would never work as silents.
However, silent films did things sound films could never hope to accomplish, like greater intensity of emotion and a more personal viewing experience. Even the hybrids of the late Twenties, which had some synchronized speech and/or sound effects, knew how to use sound selectively and not overwhelm the entire picture. The film industry really took some major steps back in the creaky early talkie era, and by waiting as long as he did to make his talkie début, Chaplin avoided the worst of those problems.