Charles Chaplin remembered precisely the moment when, as he said, “music first entered my soul”. As a small boy, living in poverty in Kennington, he heard a pair of street musicians playing “The Honeysuckle and the Bee” on clarinet and harmonica at Kennington Cross. “It was here that I first discovered music, or where I first learned its rare beauty, a beauty that has gladdened and haunted me from that moment.”
His powerful response to music was closely linked to his comic pantomime, which was from the start marked by a strong rhythmical, balletic character. Music played an important part in the presentations of the Karno comedy sketch company with whom young Chaplin toured the vaudeville circuits before going into pictures. He recalled that Karno would achieve comic contrast by accompanying the grossest slapstick with delicate 18th century airs.
As soon as he was able to afford instruments, Chaplin taught himself to play the violin and ‘cello, and spent hours improvising on piano and organ. In 1916 he published three songs of his own composition. Later he wrote and published theme songs for “The Kid”, “The Idle Class” and “The Gold Rush”. In the silent period it was usual to commission professional arrangers to compile suitable accompaniments for films from published music: these were then performed live by whatever instrumental combinations each cinema could afford. There is every indication however that as early as “A Woman of Paris” (1923) Chaplin was involving himself closely in the musical preparation.
Extract from My Autobiography by Charles Chaplin, published 1964:
“One happy thing about sound was that I could control the music, so I composed my own.
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 grave and charm, to express sentiment, without which, as Hazlitt says, a work of art is incomplete. Sometimes a musician would get pompous with me and talk of the restricted intervals of the chromatic and the diatonic scale, and I would cut him short with a layman’s remark; “Whatever the melody is, the rest is just a vamp.” After putting music to one or two pictures I began to look at a conductor’s score with a professional eye and to know whether a composition was over-orchestrated or not. If I saw a lot of notes in the brass and woodwind section, I would say: “That’s too black in the brass”, or “too busy in the woodwinds.”
Nothing is more adventurous and exciting than to hear the tunes one has composed played for the first time by a fifty piece orchestra.”
An October 21st 1940 article in the Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News by Bruno David Ussher quotes Chaplin as saying “Film music must never sound as if it were concert music. While it actually may convey more to the beholder-listener than the camera conveys at a given moment, still it must be never more than the voice of that camera”.
Though Chaplin resisted including dialogue in films for some years after the introduction of sound, nevertheless the advent of sound enabled him to compose music for CITY LIGHTS and release the film in 1931 with a complete synchronised score to enhance the images.
The Chaplin archives reveal that he contemplated making his next film MODERN TIMES, released in 1936, as a sound film, but in the end was to use only impersonal recorded voices (the factory manager on a video-surveillance screen in the men’s restrooms, and the instructions for use of the factory worker’s feeding machine). and no dialogue. Nevertheless, and more importantly, in this film the world heard The Little Tramp’s voice for the first time, when Charlie sings a song to entertain the restaurant customers. He loses the words to the song and makes some up, in a mixture of nonsense and Italian/French/English (“la spinash o la bouchon, cigarette Portobello”), ingeniously therefore, in spite of the introduction of sound, retaining the Little Tramp’s gift for communication with people worldwide. Once again Chaplin’s own score completed the synchronised sound for MODERN TIMES. Later the song SMILE from this film became a classic, still sung and recorded by many.
THE GREAT DICTATOR was the first film in which Chaplin’s spoken voice was heard.
He then went on to revise some of his earlier films, and in 1942 THE GOLD RUSH, previously a silent film, was re-released with a narration by Chaplin and a musical score that he composed.
Each score was written with the help of a musical arranger, as Chaplin knew exactly what he wanted to hear in terms of instrumentation, notes and rhythm, without having the ability to write it down. In relation to the score of City Lights, Chaplin modestly explained: “I really didn’t write it down, I la-laed and Arthur Johnston
wrote it down (…) It is all simple music, you know, in keeping with my character.” However an article by Meredith Willson (music arranger for The Great Dictator) in the New York Herald Tribune (October 27th 1940) reveals that Chaplin’s contribution to the music writing was somewhat more than simply humming a tune and leaving the arrangers to write the music: “I have never met a man who devoted himself so completely to the ideal of perfection as CC. (…) I was constantly amazed at his attention to details, his feeling for the exact musical phrase or tempo to express the mood he wanted… Always he is seeking to ferret out every false note however minor from film or music”
Many tunes in Chaplin’s later films were considerable musical successes, in particular those from THE COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG sung by Petula Clark in the late sixties. “Smile” from MODERN TIMES was even recorded by Michael Jackson.
Between 1958 and the early 70s, Chaplin composed music for all the remaining silent films owned by Roy Export Company Establishment: : SHOULDER ARMS, THE PILGRIM and A DOG’S LIFE, (re-released together as THE CHAPLIN REVUE), THE CIRCUS, THE KID, THE IDLE CLASS, SUNNYSIDE, A DAY’S PLEASURE, PAY DAY, and A WOMAN OF PARIS.
The original scores and parts needed extensive restoration in order to be available for modern day orchestras to perform at live screenings. Some parts were missing and had to be re-written, for others alterations to notation and instrumentation had been made at the last minute during recording and not been marked on the scores; painstaking comparison of the soundtrack on the film and the written scores took months. The scores to CITY LIGHTS, THE GOLD RUSH and THE KID and THE IDLE CLASS were restored by Carl Davis, and CITY LIGHTS (sic) , THE GOLD RUSH (sic), MODERN TIMES, THE CIRCUS, SHOULDER ARMS, A DOG’S LIFE and THE PILGRIM by Timothy Brock. Timothy Brock has also compiled a 20 minute suite of the music from Modern Times which is available for concerts and made a new arrangement of Chaplin music for A WOMAN OF PARIS based on Chaplin’s score for the film and other earlier compositions.