It’s 2017, and silent films are dying.
Silent films started dying in 1927, of course, when The Jazz Singer mainstreamed the use of synchronised dialogue – although it itself was a sound-silent hybrid, mostly using sound in the sections to do with musical performance. By the 1930s, basically all films were talkies, and apart from occasional blips – Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie or best picture winner The Artist – we’ve never looked back. Silent films have been dead for almost a hundred years, and there’s no good mourning them now.
But there’s the second death – the death that occurs when something once vibrant and alive is forgotten by everyone living. That time will come for everything and everyone, but there’s an artificial acceleration when an art form has fallen out of use. Charles Dickens is as popular and well-known as ever, but he mightn’t be if everyone had stopped writing or reading novels for a hundred years. He mightn’t have been had it not been possible to publish his serials in the form of the novel, instead of leaving them scattered across the volumes of history. Silent films are still films, but they’re different in a pretty fundamental way, in a way that seems impossibly big if you’ve never seen one.
So I’m really worried – unreasonably worried – that people are going to forget Charlie Chaplin.
At any other time in the past hundred years, that would have sounded mad. Chaplin’s Tramp was the most iconic figure in all of world cinema, one of the most iconic images ever created by humanity. He was incredibly popular, a level of celebrity and fame and fandom only matched by maybe The Beatles. Worrying that people will forget about Charlie Chaplin makes about as much sense as worrying that they’ll forget about The Beatles: even if you’ve never seen his films, he’s buried deep down in the culture in a way that transcends knowledge. I knew the oceana roll dance from The Gold Rush without ever having seen the film.
That ubiquity leads to a weird contradiction in Chaplin’s legacy: he’s still this incredibly famous, iconic cultural figure, but through a kind of hearsay. Any number of Chaplin bits are familiar to all, but his films are not widely viewed. I knew the oceana roll dance – or the boxing scene in City Lights, or the bit with the lion in The Circus – but I didn’t see a Charlie Chaplin film until I was twenty-two, when I actively sought him out. Chaplin is everywhere, in comedy, in film, in anything that trades on the ubiquity of his image. But his art is not.
His films used to be broadcast on television, because the rights were cheap and there weren’t half a thousand original scripted shows in broadcast. In this way, he helped to assure a legacy that Harold Lloyd, who was a very popular comic actor in the silent era but charged extortionate rates to broadcast his films on television, would never have. But they’re not shown on television anymore, and there emerges a self-fulfilling prophecy of inaccessibility. You’ve never seen a silent film, and so you think that they’d be too hard, or at the very least, boring, and so you never watch a silent film, and the TV stations and streaming services and cinemas think that nobody is interested in silent films, and they go from being perceived as inaccessible because of a difficulty level to being literally inaccessible as in, not available to watch anywhere. It’s the same reason that everyone on the planet thinks that Samuel Beckett’s plays are abstract, boring and humourless: they have nothing to prove them wrong, because the local theatre isn’t going to put on a Beckett play because they know people will think that and stay away in their droves.
I’m not going to talk about why Chaplin is historically or artistically important to films as art. That’s the stuff that’s obvious, the stuff that isn’t at risk of disappearing. He was probably one of the most talented people to ever live, writing, directing, acting and composing music for his films, as well as being amazing on roller skates. But what is at risk is the visceral core of Chaplin’s career: he made populist art for mass audiences all across the world, of different ages, classes, and cultures. Locking Chaplin up in a film studies class is a tragedy, because it’s a betrayal of his whole artistic purpose. Chaplin films are for the people, and the people deserve to reclaim them.
Near the start of The Kid, Chaplin’s first feature-length film, this intertitle appears:
That idea – a smile and perhaps a tear – is the heart of Chaplin’s films, to me. I’m always confused when people sneer at Spielberg for being emotionally manipulative, because the point of a film is to create an emotional experience. Chaplin knew that, and he made films that were hilarious, but also moving, sad and sweet and romantic and silly and empathetic and kind. Chaplin will make you laugh, make you cry, and make your heart swell in your chest, like you are experiencing something bigger than yourself.
It’s easy to reduce Chaplin’s films to their historical significance. It’s easy to talk about them as if they exist to pave the way for what would come later. But Chaplin is still one of the very best ever to make movies, and all you’ll need to do to let him prove it is give him a chance. City Lights is about a blind girl who falls in love with the Tramp thinking that he’s a rich man, and it’ll break your heart. The Great Dictator, his first talkie, ends with the greatest speech of all time. I bawled the entire way through The Circus, a film not even Chaplin fans care that much about. Charlie Chaplin was the one guy who kept making silent films after sound came in, and he remained as successful as ever, because something as trivial as not talking couldn’t separate Chaplin from the people. He was brilliant, and anyone who knew that, the way that film audiences did then, would never be put off by his silence.
The Kid is about an hour long. It’s a picture with a smile, and perhaps a tear, and you’re going to love it. I promise.