The Foot-Drag in Chaplin’s Unintelligible Song

Modern Times (1936) has so many hilarious scenes and remarkable moments, I thought I would write a brief comment on the sounds and music just before the audience is treated to unintelligible lyrics during the floor show.

As Chaplin dances around the floor and learns that his cuff with the lyrics has flown off his arm, he drags his foot to create a noticeable sound. What is remarkable to me is the way the dancing and music here are perfectly synced – something that clearly had to be rehearsed – and added to the humor of unintelligibility and pantomime.

As he drags his foot on the floor, listen to what it’s doing in relationship to the music. The foot is emphasizing the up-beat as the orchestra vamps adding to the anticipation as they wait for him to begin singing. The foley effect almost sounds like brushes on the head of a snare drum, adding a musical level of anticipation that is already apparent in Chaplin’s physical comedy. His movements are funny; however, the addition of a sonic effect well outside the realm of simple mickey-mousing, he takes one of the film’s main conceit of utilizing synchronized sound to make the ultimate silent film one step further. The song’s lyrics (a combination of many languages) are completely beside the point. What matters are Chaplin’s gestures and pantomime in winning over the crowd. The emphasis on that foot drag is just one of many ways that the scene makes a commentary on the role of talkies versus silent films. It also doesn’t hurt that the scene is incredibly entertaining.

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