“Moving pictures need sound as much as Beethoven symphonies need lyrics.” – Charlie Chaplin
Imagine this: You’re a living legend. You write, direct, produce, edit, cast, score, and star in all of your films. Hell, you even own the studio! While everyone else in Hollywood works hard to control production costs, you burn through celluloid LIKE A BOSS. A 3:1 shooting ratio? That’s cute. Your shooting ratios are anywhere from 25:1 to 100:1. Don’t like the way a scene is playing out? No problem. Snap your fingers and stop production for days, weeks until you get an idea. Your on-screen persona is so relatable and well-crafted that you’ve been able to transcend language and cultural barriers around the world. You’re an international movie star, the first and last of your kind. And the only thing that could possibly stop you is your own voice.
This was the dilemma Charlie Chaplin faced in 1927 when the Warner Brothers released The Jazz Singer, the first feature-length motion picture with synchronized dialogue. The film marked the beginning of the end of the silent era; one dominated by everyone’s favorite quiet hero, The Tramp. Chaplin knew his magic ended where The Tramp’s voice began, but talkies were popular and becoming the norm. So he decided to give The Little Fellow a sendoff for the ages in Modern Times (1936).
Now imagine being a moviegoer in the 1930s. Word on the street is Charlie Chaplin made another movie. It’s a weird talkie/silent film hybrid, but you FINALLY get to hear his voice for the first time in your life. This is the most famous guy in the entire world. This is a big, big deal. You watch and you wait and the scene builds and you’re gonna hear it! It’s about to happen! And…it’s gibberish? Wait. What? No, can’t be. Maybe it’s French? Spanish? Italian? No. No. And no. It’s nonsense. That’s right: A big middle finger to those responsible for The Tramp’s demise. They may have found a way to kill The Tramp, but Charlie Chaplin figured out how to preserve his magic forever.