City Lights at the Dawn of the Talkies: An Interview with Jeffrey Vance

CityLights_DFcoverCity Lights contains one of the most powerful sequences in all of American cinema, or any cinema for that matter. A woman, once blind, finally meets the man she believes was her wealthy benefactor. Their eyes meet through the glass of her flower shop, the full flowering symbol of her renewed life. She approaches him out of pity, believing him to be a homeless man being taunted by kids out on the street. Seeing that he is downtrodden and in need, she goes out to press a coin into his palm.  Touching his hand, she realizes that this Little Tramp, not some wealthy businessman, was her benefactor all along. Fresh from being released from prison for the very act that helped save her vision, the Tramp can only smile and cry. These final moments could only be pulled off by Charlie Chaplin. And now, in the latest of a series of releases by the Criterion Collection from the Chaplin archives, we can enjoy this “Comedy Romance in Pantomime” in its newly restored form.

Recently, I spoke with Jeffrey Vance, author of Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema, who provided the audio commentary on the new Criterion Collection release of the film. We spoke about the fragile state of silent films, Chaplin’s directing methods, his politics, and of course, the art of pantomime at a time when Hollywood was turning to sound and the talkies.

-Rob Ribera

Not to start our conversation on a low note, but did you see the Library of Congress study that was released this month about silent films being pretty much gone?

Yes, but that’s nothing new for those of us who work in this industry. It’s a very sad thing. Thankfully, most of Chaplin’s films have survived. We’re only missing, we believe, one title.

There are some real reasons why those films are gone, for example the nitrate stock, but do you believe that releasing a figure like that actually engages us more in order to save that history?
I think so. I think the Library of Congress study will galvanize some government funding. Money for “orphan” films in particular, as they call them, films that are not owned by a particular studio. If David Pierce’s study gets people interested and aware of how much of the silent cinema is gone—and there really is a lot of work to be done still—it’s a good thing. And David Pierce is an exceptional scholar and researcher, so I’m sure his figures are correct. Silent films went into distribution, they were used and enjoyed, and then they made new ones. And then when silent films were rendered obsolete with talkies, it was just unwanted shelf space. A lot of studios just junked their silent films.  Universal dumped their silents in the ocean just to get rid of them.

It’s hard to imagine anything like that happening today.

You’d be surprised. There are a lot of studios today that would love to free up storage space. Archiving is expensive. It’s not a profit-generating department at a studio. It’s about money, of course. It has been about money from the beginning. And the studios are always looking for ways to cut costs. Photochemical preservation work is very expensive, and now they just want to scan early films, put them in a “cloud,” and hope that works as a means of preserving them. “Nothing is new except that which has been forgotten,” is what historians like to say. And it’s true, in a way, nothing changes. It’s 100 years after Chaplin’s Little Tramp, but the thinking is the same as in the early days. It’s really sad.

So let’s talk a little bit about Chaplin. Can you talk about Chaplin’s process of beginning production without a fleshed-out script and the challenges that posed and happy accidents that it brought about?

Chaplin used to say he “wrote with the camera,” which is a very romantic phrase. I guess it depends on what period of Chaplin’s career we’re talking about. In the early days, at Keystone, there would be no other way but to go out and film situations, with a very rough idea in your head. When we’re talking about the great feature films, like City Lights or The Gold Rush, he obviously had ideas of a general story or scenario because it became a very expensive business by that time. But he really did not have a proper script. None of the great silent comedians did. You really couldn’t create those wonderful visual comedy situations on paper, it just wasn’t possible. You had to try it out and see how it worked. Because Chaplin was his own director he had to first watch himself on screen with his dailies. Then he would continue to refine and revisit, and reshoot until he cut something together that really worked. Then when he was happy with that section, what he would call a “faction,” he would go on to the next section. There was a general idea of where the story was going, but sometimes he would change direction completely based on what he was getting. When he went into talking films, he just could not put visual comedy on paper. The visual comedy of the famous pairing of Chaplin and Buster Keaton in Limelight sent Chaplin to bed with illness and fatigue because it’s so much harder to do choreograph visual comedy during production than to write it down on paper in pre-production. Chaplin was very much one to save money so if he could’ve worked it out on paper in advance, he would have. It just was not possible. It wasn’t possible for any of the silent comedians—Keaton or Harold Lloyd included.

Lloyd was a particularly interesting case because he didn’t have the theatrical experience that Chaplin or Keaton had, so Lloyd would have an idea, photograph it, sometimes preview a picture and then redo whole chunks of a film based on audience reaction. And then he would continue to preview and preview and preview until he got the film audiences enjoyed. You could do that with a silent film because you didn’t have a soundtrack. You were just cutting picture and you could go back to a whole section, cut it in, and preview it a week later. It’s a different way of making movies.

Part of that was Chaplin’s mastery of pantomime and waiting for inspiration to strike. But then there’s the more arduous example of the scene where the tramp meets the blind girl.  342 takes is a lot of takes. Are there other instances in City Lights where inspiration took hold and changed things?

Virginia Cherrill, the leading lady of City Lights, told me—as she told many people—that she felt sometimes that if Chaplin didn’t have an idea in his head, he would just keep shooting the same thing over and over again until it triggered the next idea. So we really don’t always know if he shot so much material for any given scene because he was really wanting perfection, as with that particular moment in City Lights that we’re talking about, or if he was just stalling for time. I don’t feel we should judge his process. It was his own money, his own studio. If it worked for him, it worked for him. It may seem crazy to us now, but again he wasn’t financing his films through a bank. He financed them himself. He had no one to answer to but himself, and we’re still talking about these films all these years later when most of his contemporaries have been forgotten. It obviously worked, so who are we to judge his creative process? He hated the idea of anyone looking at his outtakes or his private films. He liked to keep the mystery. He used to say “if people know how it’s done, all the magic goes.” Ironically we have more of a paper trail, more outtakes, more oral history, more documentation with Chaplin than any other filmmaker from the silent film era.
With respect to that famous moment, the Guinness World Record “for most retakes of any one scene” is City Lights. The number is 342. I have the continuity reports for City Lights, which tells you how many times a shot was taken. I counted up over 200 for that sequence. I’m not sure how they got that 342 number. I’m not going to say it’s not true, but I don’t think they had the vigilance that they have today with the Guinness committee clocking these things up. I don’t know how that number got into the Guinness records. Really, it was well over 200. And it famously holds the record, and who am I to question Chaplin’s Guinness record? There was no greater perfectionist in films than Chaplin.

20a.tifCan you talk about his role as, almost a studio head as well? How important was it to him to have that complete control? There are stories on the DVD about people being bored around the studio space as Chaplin waited for inspiration.

He needed complete control. He was a prickly man. Not many people were bored working for Chaplin. They found him very stimulating. Virginia Cherrill said she was bored because he wouldn’t show up to the studio, so she had to wait. There was no commissary; there were none of the wonderful things that were on a major studio lot, like a Paramount or Universal lot. Chaplin had his own tiny little studio, which still exists at 1416 North La Brea Avenue in Hollywood. It is the home of the Jim Henson Company today. It’s a very tiny lot. It’s perfect for one man. And he needed complete control. He was a control freak. I suspect—I’m not a psychiatrist or a psychologist, and I didn’t put it in my Chaplin book because it’s not proper for even a psychiatrist to diagnose someone who is not on their couch—but I suspect Chaplin was what you would call a borderline personality. He had a horrible childhood, and he needed to be in complete control of his world as an adult. When he was in complete control he could be a very charming and wonderful man. When he felt that things were out of control, that was when he could be more than just prickly. He needed, again, not to be told what to do. And of course with City Lights, he produced a silent film when everyone else went to talkies. He was an artistic law unto himself and he had the conviction that if it was good enough for him—if it was a film that pleased him—it would please the public. He needed that autonomy. He was fearless. I admire him tremendously.

I wouldn’t call him a studio head like a Louis B. Mayer. He certainly had his own studio, and made his own films as an independent producer. He was part owner of a distribution company, United Artists. So he knew that a distributor would take his product. So he was relieved of playing the studio games, of talking to gossip columnists, working the publicity machine, kowtowing to studio heads. He didn’t need any of those people. He had his own facility and his own entity to put his finished product through distribution. So in that sense, he had complete artistic control from start to finish.

On the commentary track you say that Chaplin producing a silent film at this moment is “an act of defiance.”  What were his intentions there? It seems brave but also he must have been scared as well.

The points you raise are correct for Modern Times. With City Lights, when he began the film, they were still in the silent film period. Talkies were definitely alive. Yet people were still making hybrid films, where there would be part talking, but predominantly silent. There would be a soundtrack added. City Lights was in pre-production in 1928, and Garbo’s The Kiss was released in 1929, the last big studio silent film. So when he began City Lights it wasn’t so much this brave thing, but when it went into a two-year production, that’s when it started to become very brave indeed.

There’s only a small portion of the world that speaks English. Pantomime is universal. And he felt that with a soundtrack of his own music and sound effects it would go over. The concern was: would exhibitors pay his price—top dollar—for the final product? They did, but it was a daring move. At the start, it just seemed like the logical thing for Chaplin to do. He would go on making silent films because he knew the Tramp could not have a voice. If it was in one language it would be foreign to 90% of the world. And he had the whole worldwide market with the universality of silent films. All you had to do was change the inter-titles. And of course he always labored over what voice the Tramp might have. Would he speak with a Cockney accent, an American accent? He just didn’t know. And he never resolved this problem in his mind, he just felt that the Tramp had to be a silent character.

So it became more difficult with Modern Times because by that time the whole film industry had lost the discipline of making a silent film. The actors who worked in silent films had lost the technique of how to pantomime in front of the camera, so he felt that he was reinventing the wheel with that one. That just about burned him out, and he knew that silent films had to be over with Modern Times. And he was right.

Can you talk a little bit about Chaplin as the composer?

Yes! He was a self-taught musician. He could play violin and cello, also piano and organ. In fact he had his violin and cello strung with the bass bar and sounding post reversed because he was left-handed. He published music as early as 1916 and recorded music in the 20s for Gramophone release. He worked with a musician in the 20s for the music score for the premiere engagements of A Woman of Paris, The Gold Rush, The Circus, preparing those compiled musical scores that would go with the film. So when sound came in with City Lights, he loved the idea of attaching a proper music track to his silent images because he could not control that in the silent film era beyond the big premiere engagements. He didn’t know if he was getting a tinkering piano or a half-hearted theater organ score, or an ill-led orchestra. He just didn’t know how his films were being presented and he was very interested in the exhibition of his films. So he loved the idea of at last finally controlling the music that would accompany the images. He was very talented with his musical ideas, he was very good with tune and melody. And he would work with an orchestrator and an arranger. He hired a very talented man, Arthur Johnston for City Lights, and they worked together. Basically, Chaplin had the tune and they worked together to develop the tune. Chaplin also had definite ideas about orchestration. It was up to the arranger to write all this down, develop Chaplin’s ideas, and Chaplin would oversee the recording. Sometimes he would make changes in the recording based on what he was hearing. When his name is attached to a film as the composer it’s not an exaggeration. However with City Lights, he borrowed “La Violetera”, which he loved. He had a true gift for music.  He has three hit songs that are still heard today on the radio and often re-recorded. You have “Smile”, which came out of a tune from Modern Times. You have “Eternally” from Limelight. And you have “This is My Song”, from A Countess of Hong Kong, which Petula Clarke made a big hit in the late 60s. As a composer you’d be lucky to have one big hit and Chaplin had three enormous hits.

Chaplin as a director is really interesting because he doesn’t move the camera a whole lot. Again it’s fascinating because you think of him controlling the production and the scenario more than obsessing over the medium and camera movement.

His camera style, his use of the camera—he really was a man of the theater and thought of the aperture as a proscenium arch. He had the idea of having the action at eye-level, full figured distance, or for a medium shot at waist-high figure distance, depending on what the scene demanded. Close-ups were seldom filmed. And also, Chaplin’s lighting was basic, without any attempts at tricks or mood. He had a rudimentary approach to camera tricks and lighting, and it was a conscious decision to remain focused on the actors and to leave the performance space accessible for improvisation at all times. Furthermore, complicated camera setups require time, and when the mercurial Chaplin was ready to act he didn’t want to be waiting on technicians. That’s why he had an open, performance-based approach. If he was filming his rehearsals, or if he was “writing with the camera,” he had to keep it open. If he came up with a wonderful idea they had to be able to capture it.

That being said, it’s important to stress that Chaplin could be a wonderfully innovative filmmaker when he wasn’t contemplating his own screen image. There are a lot of negative articles about Chaplin as a director, primarily in the 50s and 60s, and maybe into the early 70s because the world had not seen, for decades, his incredibly magical 1923 film, A Woman of Paris, which is a film he wrote and directed but did not appear in. It is an amazing piece of work, as a director. He’s using wonderful camera angles, lighting, camera setups. It’s a director’s piece. And people like Rex Ingram, Sergei Eisenstein, and Ernst Lubitsch, praised it to the sky. The trouble was, the film was not a commercial success. So Chaplin gave the public what they wanted, which was the Little Tramp. And the Tramp had to be photographed in a certain way. So it was devastating to Chaplin as a director that when he had all these wonderful ideas, they weren’t embraced. They wanted the Tramp, and the Tramp had to be filmed in a certain way. Nothing takes away from the Tramp, he’s an actor’s piece. So he went back to his rudimentary approach to filmmaking. But still he could be a great Pictorialist. I think The Circus best demonstrates that in a Tramp feature. Even in City Lights there are some great moments. If you’re looking at criticism, I’d be interested to see when that criticism was written, because everything changed after the world saw A Woman of Paris again with the reissue of 1976. They realized in actual fact that he was a great filmmaker, it was just a choice not to with the Tramp.

What were Chaplin’s views on the politics of poverty, and how did the little tramp transform over time? City Lights opens with the Peace and Prosperity statue, and also the City Lights world tour becomes very important to him as he takes that experience into Modern Times. Were there light bulb moments when the tramp transformed into something more?

As the David to the Goliath of the mechanized world, there was definitely a political Chaplin, starting with Modern Times and continuing with the satire of The Great Dictator. The Jewish Barber of The Great Dictator has the trappings of Tramp—the bowler hat, large shoes, and the cane—but that was just to suggest that the character was everyman. The Jewish Barber isn’t the Tramp. And then, of course, he became very political with Monsieur Verdoux, which was an attack on capitalism. Chaplin was very political filmmaker, and I find that aspect of him fascinating. When Monsieur Verdoux did not make money, he retreated to safer ground, with Limelight, which is a non-political film. But he really couldn’t keep away from it. When he went into self-imposed exile, he made A King of New York, which is a political film and an attack on McCarthyism and commercialism. People also read political things into his pictures in the early days, because he was this David against these various Goliaths. He seemed to symbolize so much—the downtrodden humanity.  The resilient Tramp against various systems, against authority. Yes, there is a lot of politics that can be read into Chaplin, including class struggles. But it didn’t really become a conscious thing with Chaplin until Modern Times.

Thinking about Chaplin and tragedy, including his own personal tragedy, is there a tramp without the sadness for him? He describes City Lights as a comedy romance, but obviously there’s so much sadness that we see in the film.

Chaplin’s original audience saw his pathos-humor slowly evolve. His best body of work, arguably, is the twelve films that he made for the Mutual Film Corporation in 1916-1917. They are some of the funniest films ever made. When he went to First National, had his own studio, and started to slow down, he wanted to put more into his films. Chaplin was always fighting against the idea that his comedy was crude. So the Tramp was refined over the years. By the First National period, the Tramp developed his artistic soul and he had the real elements of pathos like in The Kid. Then he made a dramatic film with A Woman of Paris, and then he believed that comedy and tragedy were closely aligned, and he would delve into those aspects. He felt that it would make his films more meaningful and give them more gravitas because he didn’t want to be seen as just a comedian. So there’s a lot of sadness in The Gold Rush, The Circus, and City Lights of course, which is a very sad ending. But he had to walk a tightrope because his audience wanted different things. The highbrows liked the serious elements, and the general public maybe didn’t. So he would try to walk a very fine line by having these elements of sadness.  There was a famous book, Clowns and Pantomime, by Maurice W. Disher, which came out in 1925 that impressed Chaplin greatly. He liked the idea of the Tramp becoming a Pierrot, and Pierrot pines after Columbine. But there is always a triangle with Harlequin, her lover. So think of that in The Gold Rush, think of that in The Circus, that triangle. The sad clown, essentially. So he studied classical clowning and imposed some of those ideas on his great feature films. And there you see that sad element and the pathos humor for which he is associated.

What was your time like in the Chaplin archives?

It was wonderful. My interest in Chaplin began when I was young and I interviewed all these people who knew or worked with Chaplin who are now gone, which formed the basis of my work. The Chaplins knew me and I was later given the honor of archiving Chaplin’s film vault. This was in the year 2000. I spent half a year outside of London archiving the Chaplin film vault—all the outtakes, all the private films, all the various versions. I cataloged and studied everything, including all the music, the sound elements as well as the picture elements. So as I’m sure any Shakespeare scholar wants to study the earliest folios, a Chaplin scholar wants to study all of the earliest texts, which in this case is the film elements, the outtakes, the home movies, and I got to handle all that because I am a professional film archivist as well as a cinema historian. Now the Chaplin Archives have been digitized by the Cineteca di Bologna and it’s not quite the same. You can’t physically handle that film, so I’m grateful for that opportunity. I am uniquely positioned as leading Chaplin historian or expert if you will because I not only archived the films, but I archived the still photographs because I wrote a book called Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema that was heavily illustrated. The arrangement that I made with the Chaplins was that I would bring original photographic negatives to Los Angeles and have the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences make modern archival prints. So I oversaw the photochemical preservation of all the photography of these great films—the scene stills but also the behind the scenes images—that tell their own great stories. So I know everything there is to know from the films and the photography, and I’ve studied Chaplin’s personal and professional papers. All of this precious material is digitized now, but it was invaluable handling the actual, physical materials. I’m very grateful for that unique opportunity and it is the foundation of my expertise.

How does one go about preparing an audio commentary?

That’s a great question, and one that is not very often asked of me, and it should be asked. I’m very pleased with the positive reviews for the Criterion Collection edition of City Lights. I think it’s my best commentary so far. Criterion is the Rolls Royce of this kind of work. They give you the most time to prepare, the most studio time to get it right. Warner Home Video, who I’ve worked with quite a bit and has a lot more money than Criterion, doesn’t give me the luxuries that I’m given with Criterion.  I’ll tell you about the process. What do you want to know?


How do you condense that material into, what for this release, becomes an 87 minute lecture? How does it begin?

Criterion or someone else will contact me and inquire if I’d like to write and record a commentary track. I usually accept the invitation, and they usually give me at least six weeks to prepare. I ask for a time-coded DVD-R, so I can see the numbers fly by. This helps me time everything out. I start preparing a script. They will not allow a historian today to go into a recording studio without a script. Maybe the cast of a television show or a prominent film director can go into a recording studio and talk off the top of their head “on the fly” and get away with that, but they will not let a historian do that today. Everything is prepared on paper to time code. Everything should be scene specific, in other words, it should mirror what is on the screen. Some film historians think it’s wonderful to give what they called an “audio essay,” which is a long boring talk that doesn’t reflect anything on the screen. That doesn’t work for reviewers, for fans, and for most studios these days. So everything should attempt to serve the action on the screen, and I like that approach. I accumulate everything, all the facts, and try to fit them to the action on the screen. I condense, refine, and fit it to time, so that when something fades out on screen, I have to end my thought and start up a new thought. Trying to work out all that information and getting it to compliment what is on screen is a lot of work and takes many hours. Then you have to get it approved by your producer, and they may have some suggestions. At Criterion, Abbey Lustgarten is my producer and she’s exemplary. I owe her a great deal. Then you go into the studio, and Abbey and Criterion give me quite a lot of time. Criterion wants to have everything as perfect as possible. Then you record. The art is that you try to make it sound like you’re not reading a script. Of course that’s impossible when you are quoting New York Times reviews, you can’t make it sound organic, but you try and make it as conversational as possible. It becomes a real talent unto itself. I’ve done about fifteen of them, so I’m starting to get the hang of it. A lot of people want to do them and but once they realize how much time and effort is involved they beg off.

But there are sometimes a lot of problems involved. If you are Warner Home Video you have to go by Warner’s legal department, and Warner legal can cut things for peculiar reasons. And, therefore, sometimes an entire section of your commentary can be cut out, you’ve a huge gap, and the commentary no longer fits the action on screen It’s challenging work with a lot of heartache sometimes. And would you believe it, when I started doing this, historians would do it for free, just for the honor of having their voice attached to a favorite movie? Today you get paid for it, but they are doing a lot less than they used to because the market for DVDs and Blu-rays has declined dramatically for what studios call “catalog titles” or old movies. Frankly, I turn less and less of this work down now as I’m quite convinced that it will all dry up over the next couple of years. Everything will go to downloading or streaming. If you’ve recorded a commentary in the past, I’m sure that a studio will retain it for downloading or streaming. I just don’t see them doing a lot of new “value added material” as they call it for a physical thing, for a hard copy such as a Blu-ray. I see that market dying out very quickly.

What are you working on now?

I’m constantly being pulled back to Chaplin. He’s my cinematic hero, so that’s a pleasure. 2014 is 100 years of the Little Tramp.  I’m doing projects with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and with Turner Classic Movies. But my big project that I’m working on is a biography of Mary Pickford. I’m very excited about it. There have been several Pickford biographies, maybe two or three that have been substantial, but they don’t take in the entire life and career.  They seem to lose interest after she stopped starring in films in 1933. I’m taking in the whole life and career, and it’s fascinating and meaningful work. I hope to have the first draft completed by the end of 2014. It’s my last book. I don’t want to do any more books. Just like the Blu-ray market, I think the market for film history books like this is drying up. But I am a passionate advocate of Mary Pickford. I wrote her a fan letter when I was eight. She was still alive in 1978, and she responded to it and gave me early encouragement to enter the field of film history. So I like the fact that my career will come full circle and I can repay that debt by writing the definitive life and career study of Mary Pickford and develop a wider interest in her because she deserves that. I maintain that she was one of the true greats, along with Chaplin. So this is meaningful work and the Mary Pickford Foundation has been wonderful to me.