Defining Charlie Chaplin’s Cinematic Style in City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940)

Alex Titcombe - Guest Writer

A criticism often aimed at celebrated comedian and filmmaker Charlie Chaplin is that whilst the substance of his films display genius through his comic timing, physicality and ability to have his comedy succinctly reflect on societal matters, his films are sparse in terms of cinematic style. This notion is articulated by Sklar, who determines that ‘[Chaplin] seemed content with simplicity in the exterior elements of cinematic style in order to keep the viewer’s focus on the complex nature of his own comic persona’ (1994, 114). Whilst it is undeniable that the substance of Chaplin’s films reflect a cinema which prefers to let the spectacle of his comedy play out with little camera tricks or edits, arguably this does not mean a lack of cinematic style. Instead his films possess a cinematic style which focuses on a purposeful choice of shots that aids the mise-en-scène, and, in his later films, a unique use of sound and dialogue which suggests a clear criticism of the early talking films, portraying sound and the spoken word as being ‘hostile to human life’ (Jaffe, 1979, 27). This essay shall endeavour to argue that Chaplin’s films do possess a sophisticated cinematic style which stand separately from the substance of his narratives, making reference to his first three films that make use of sound, City Lights (Chaplin, 1931), Modern Times (Chaplin, 1936) and The Great Dictator (Chaplin, 1940), and in doing so concur with Bazin’s view that ‘if there had never been a cinema [Chaplin] would undoubtedly have been a clown of genius, but the cinema has allowed him to raise the comedy of circus and music hall to the highest aesthetic level’ (1967, 158).
        In Chaplin’s cinema the camera is often subdued and minimalistic, with wide shots often being used to allow the performers to perform without disorientating edits. This does not mean however that Chaplin’s films possess a methodological choice of shots, as his shots and juxtaposition of shots are often used to elicit emotion or tension. In his autobiography Chaplin demonstrates an attitude toward camera placement that suggests a meticulous approach to shot choice, writing that:
Placement of camera should effect composition and a graceful entrance for the actor. Placement of camera is cinematic inflection. There is no set rule that a close-up gives more emphasis than a long shot.  A close-up is a question of feeling; in some instances a long shot can effect greater influences (1964, 152).

One effective use of the long shot can be found in Modern Times, where the Tramp demonstrates his expert roller-skating skills blindfolded, unknowing that he could fall off the platform he is on at any time. (Figure 1) The camera always stays in the same long shot when filming the Tramp, tracking subtly to the left every time he heads towards the edge, building tension due to his ignorance in comparison to an audience’s knowledge of the situation. The camera only cuts to show the Gamin’s reaction shots, whose fear stands as a placeholder for the audience’s intended fear. The lack of edits in this scene create a cinematic space that establishes the relationship between the Tramp and his surroundings, and thus builds tension due to the length of the shots, whereas edits to different shots of him would interrupt this tension, in keeping with Bazin’s idea that ‘certain situations can only be said to exist cinematographically to the extent that their spatial unity is established, especially comedy situations that are based on the relations between human beings and things’ (1967, 71). Tension and comedy do not solely belong to the long shot in Chaplin’s films however, as The Great Dictator demonstrates during the sequence where the Jewish barber and his associates must each eat a pudding in the hopes that there is not a coin inside meaning certain death for them, unknowing that Hannah placed a coin inside every pudding. (Figure 2)This sequence is shot almost entirely in medium profile shots, cutting and panning between each of the four men when each one realises there is a coin in their pudding. This choice of shots aids the mise-en-scène as each character’s terrified facial expressions become the only presence in each frame: their terror providing the comedy of the sequence. Tension is created as the scene continues, as the Jewish barber gradually accumulates all the coins himself as everyone foists them onto him. Ultimately Chaplin’s use of a combination of mid and long shots during comedic sections amount to the close-up often being used emotionally or for dramatic effect, for example the blind girl in City Lights is introduced with a fade-in to a close-up of her face, exemplifying the emotional importance of this character to the narrative. (Figure 3) This shot may perhaps be proleptic of the film’s final shot and arguably the most famous shot of Chaplin’s career, where the Tramp smiles at the girl after she realises that he was her benefactor when she was blind. (Figure 4) The close-up has significance because of the sparsity of close-ups during the film, as it successfully conveys everything required for an emotional denouement, with Kerr succinctly describing the scene with ‘Charlie in giant close-up, smiling expectantly, hopelessly, gratefully, unreachably’ (1980,351). Chaplin’s use of the camera in his films delineate then a clear cinematic style, one which makes subtle use of the camera to create comedic tension and to elicit an emotional feeling during scenes of sentiment.
When considering the cinematic style of Chaplin’s films what rarely comes to mind is his use of sound, due to the fact his work prior to The Great Dictator operates entirely through the medium of silent film. Beginning from City Lights however, due to the advent of the talkies, Chaplin began to ‘[pursue] his experimentation with sound in the formal framework of the silent movie’ (Preminger, 2013, 168). The musical scores in his films starting from City Lights were composed by Chaplin himself, meaning that instead of relying on an in-house orchestra as accompaniment he could incorporate the music into the framework of the film. In his autobiography he writes that:

I tried to compose elegant and romantic music to frame my comedies in contrast to the tramp character, for elegant music gave my comedies an emotional dimension. Musical arrangers rarely understood this. They wanted the music to be funny. But I would explain that I wanted no competition, I wanted the music to be a counterpoint of grace and charm, to express sentiment (1964, 324).

Chaplin is stating that the purpose of his musical scores was not to enhance the comedy portrayed on screen, but rather evoke the moment of the narrative. There are multiple examples of this in City Lights, one such being during the first sequence where the Tramp frantically tries to free his clothing from the statue he has got himself stuck on. (Figure 5) The score, whilst humorous, is repeated often and reflects his hectic urgency; an urgency cut short by the diegetic introduction of the national anthem, which, whilst creating comedy through its abrupt introduction and conclusion, serves the sequence thematically by ‘emphasising the contrast between the pomposity of the dignified crowd and the authentic spontaneity of the Tramp’ (Preminger, 2013, 172). Another purposefully stylistic use of musical score in City Lights is present in the sequence where the Tramp and the blind girl first meet. (Figure 3) The scene begins with the Tramp stuck on a busy road, opting to escape his predicament by nonchalantly travelling through a parked limousine. He emerges from the limousine and meets the girl, who assumes him to be the car’s owner: a rich man. Despite the joke at the beginning of this sequence, the scene is scored with a sentimental and romantic track, demonstrating Chaplin’s commitment to having his scores act as a ‘counterpoint of grace and charm’. There is however an alternate way in which Chaplin incorporates music into his films, which is that instead of having his music accompany the joke he has the music actually take the role of the gag, an example of this present in his first entirely talking picture, The Great Dictator. The scene depicts the Jewish barber shaving a customer in time to Brahm’s Fifth Hungarian Rhapsody, which in terms of choreography is intensely complex and sophisticated. (Figure 6) Whilst the scene contradicts Chaplin’s notion of music as a provider of an ‘emotional dimension’, it is nevertheless stylistic, as the scene instead ‘[produces] a kind of modern ballet choreography […] particularly suited to Chaplin’s cinematic language, because his cinema is often closer to dance and music than to theatrical drama’ (Preminger, 2013, 179).
        With City Lights being finished and edited by the end of 1930, near the beginning of the sound era in Hollywood, the film was mandated to include a synchronised track (Robinson, 1996, 74-75). Chaplin uses sound in City Lights in a polysemy of ways, an obvious example being his use of sound gags such as in the scene where the Tramp accidentally swallows a whistle and proceeds to ruin a singer’s performance when he hiccups. (Figure 7) Sound is not just used however as a means of creating comedy, as Chaplin uses throughout City Lights a ‘form of stylised sound effect to draw attention to itself’ (Preminger, 2013, 170). The opening scene of the film for instance portrays two donors presenting a monument of ‘Peace and Prosperity’, who when they speak produce complete gibberish, achieved by Chaplin via speaking gibberish into a kazoo (Preminger, 2013, 171). (Figure 5) This is not just another example of a basic sound gag, in fact it demonstrates the unimportance of dialogue in Chaplin’s cinema, as the use of gibberish sync-sound tells an audience everything they need to know, that being what the donors are saying is unimportant and meaningless. Preminger cites Chion’s idea of ‘emanation speech’ in reference to this scene (2013, 171), this being ‘speech which is not necessarily heard and understood fully, in any case is not intimately tied to the heart of what might be called the narrative action’ (1994, 177). This idea of ‘emanation speech’ is present throughout Modern Times, where much of the dialogue is delivered through the means of technology such as a radio or screen, a particularly comical example being early in the film where the Tramp is interrupted in the bathroom by his boss on a large screen, who orders the Tramp to ‘quit stalling and get back to work’. (Figure 8) The purposeful decision to include dialogue in this way does not serve the narrative but instead serves Chaplin’s societal critique present in Modern Times, with Jaffe writing that ‘virtually every sound […] emanating from machines […] suggests the sacrifice of human need to mechanical or impersonal dictate’ (1979, 27). Essentially then Chaplin’s use of sound in his films dismisses the notion that he was hostile to its use in general. Instead it demonstrates Chaplin’s willingness to ‘explore sound as a means of cinematic utterance’ (Preminger, 2013, 176), culminated in the barber’s speech at the conclusion of The Great Dictator as Preminger writes that in this scene Chaplin ‘finally discards the last barrier to sound from himself as an artist’ (2013, 181). (Figure 9)
        Ultimately the cinema of Charlie Chaplin possesses a subtle cinematic style which intertwines with the comedic substance of his films, as his narratives of comedically portrayed complex issues such as social inequality and loneliness are enhanced by his camera and progressively increasing use of sound. Chaplin uses the medium of the cinema to heighten his narrative themes, or as Schoonover puts it, ‘his comedy illustrates and allegorises cinema’s precise illumination of the living human condition’ (2014, 105).

Works Cited
Chaplin, Charlie. City Lights. 1931.
Chaplin, Charlie. Modern Times. 1936.
Chaplin, Charlie. The Great Dictator. 1940.
Bazin, André. ‘Charlie Chaplin’ in Hugh Gray, What is Cinema? Volume 1 (Trans, eds.). (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967) pp. 155-163.
Bazin, André. ‘The Virtues and Limitations of Montage’ in Hugh Gray, What is Cinema? Volume 1 (Trans, eds.). (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967) pp. 61-72.
Chaplin, Charles. My Autobiography. (London: Penguin Books, 2003) Originally Published: 1964.
Chion, Michel. Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).
Jaffe, Ira. ‘Fighting Words: City Lights, Modern Times and The Great Dictator.’ Journal of the University Film Association, Vol. 31, No.1. 1979. pp. 23-32.
Kerr, Walter. The Silent Clowns. (New York: Da Capo, 1980).
Preminger, Aner. ‘Charles Chaplin Sings a Silent Requiem’ in Lawrence Howe, James E. Caron and
Benjamin Click (eds.), Refocusing Chaplin: Screen Icon through Critical Lenses. (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2013.) pp. 163-185.
Robinson, David. Charlie Chaplin: The Art of Comedy. (London: Thames & Hudson, 1996.)
Schoonover, Karl. “Histrionic Gestures and Historical Representation: Masina's Cabina, Bazin's Chaplin, and Fellini's Neorealism.” Cinema Journal, Vol. 53, No. 2. 2014. pp. 93–116.
Sklar, Robert. Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies. (New York: Vintage Books, 1994).
Figure 1:
The roller skating scene in Modern Times
Figure 2:
The pudding scene in The Great Dictator
Figure 3:
The introduction of the blind girl in City Lights
Figure 4:
The final scene of City Lights, the close-up of the Tramp’s face
Figure 5:
The opening scene of City Lights
Figure 6:
The Jewish Barber shaves a customer’s face to Brahm’s Fifth Hungarian Rhapsody in The Great Dictator
Figure 7:
The tramp chokes on a whistle in City Lights
Figure 8:
The Tramp’s bathroom trip is interrupted by sound in Modern Times
Figure 9:
Chaplin’s speech at the end of The Great Dictator
Photo Credit - Jeremy Yap -


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