In the late 1920s film stars, directors and producers faced a dilemma. 1927’s The Jazz Singer had opened the world’s eyes and ears to the talkies; movies with sound and the revolution had taken off quickly, brushing former silent stars aside and ushering in a new era of spoken dialogue. Arguably the biggest star of the silent era was Charlie Chaplin. His films had been hugely popular in every corner of the globe, from London and Los Angeles to Leningrad and Lahore. His universality came not only from his popular and identifiable Tramp character but because people from any country could understand the language of the film. Each film’s themes and jokes worked in any language and were loved by all.
It was because of The Tramp’s universality as a silent character that caused Chaplin to shun the talkies for a decade after they first became the norm. City Lights was his first film produced after The Jazz Singer and he stuck to his guns, despite outside influence, and kept The Tramp silent. The movie’s opening scene gently mocks the new medium at a statue unveiling. The City Mayor proudly strides to a podium to dedicate a new statue and when he speaks an amusing Donald Duck type noise is emitted from his mouth. His lady wife then takes the stand with similar, higher pitched results. To me this is Chaplin’s way of proving his point to the English speaking world. We can’t understand what the characters are saying so how would his fans in France, Russia or Brazil understand him if he spoke? With this opening scene we not only have our first laugh but also a taste of an ever maturing Chaplin, a man who isn’t afraid to express his opinions on screen.