The Sound of Silence: Charlie Chaplin, Composer

“Although untrained in traditional western musical notation, Chaplin was nevertheless a gifted musician with an innate sense of musical construction… His gift for melody and harmony, and his ability to accompany action perfectly, remain a germinal voice identifiable throughout his films. Like his famous character, his scores employ a perfect balance of comedy, pathos and skill.”  –  Timothy Brock, Composer

This past weekend at the 5th annual TCM Classic Film Festival, one of my personal festival highlights was a screening of Chaplin’s 1931 masterpiece City Lights. It marked the first Chaplin film to be screened at TCM Fest (Keaton’s had one, Lloyd’s had two… just saying…) and unlike Keaton and Lloyd’s films, this was screened at the unattractive hour of 9AM, and without the grand, live musical accompaniment which really helps to popularize silent screenings at the TCM Fest.  And this got me to thinking. As thrilling as live musical accompaniment is, the difference with City Lights is that the film has the luxury of a pre-recorded soundtrack. Technically, this makes it a silent film that does not require sound accompaniment.

And yet, owing to the primitive recording technology of the day, the soundtrack is admittedly tinny and raw. Chaplin’s longtime friend and costar Henry Bergman once lamented upon hearing City Lights‘ score that he doubted whether or not the process of recording sound could ever be perfected.  The score itself is grand and sweeping; an ambitious, melodious, finely crafted work that, even given the archaic technical limitations, still manages to move its listener.

You see, Chaplin may have been the one filmmaker to hold out the longest against talking pictures, but at the same time he also happened to be one of the earliest filmmakers to embrace sound, as well as to possess an innate understanding of its emotional relationship to film. This is a fitting contradiction given Chaplin was a man of so many contradictions. And, since today is Charlie Chaplin’s 125th birthday, and since I am a lifelong Chaplin fan, I have commandeered the Black Maria to dig a bit deeper into that frustratingly brilliant little fellow (who just so happens to be the absolute love of my life) and his contentious love affair with … sound.

The truth is, Chaplin could neither read nor write music. He had no formal musical training of any sort and taught himself to play the violin and cello entirely by ear. What Chaplin did have was a childhood deeply rooted in late Victorian English music hall culture. Music, whatever its form, was an integral part of Chaplin’s Dickensian childhood. So many of his boyhood memories were wrapped in the soft comfort of sheet music– melodies brainwashed into him by his mother Hannah, herself a semi-successful music hall performer before her slide into mental deterioration.

“It’s beauty was a sweet mystery I did not understand,” Chaplin said, waxing poetic about those early music hall days. “I only knew I loved it and I became reverent as the sounds carried themselves through my brain via my heart.”

This sort of reverent attachment is essential to assessing Chaplin’s musical endeavors. Music was (pardon the pun) instrumental to Chaplin’s growth as an artist.  How could it not? Charlie fell in love for the first time there in the damp, dirty, overcrowded backstage of the London music hall (Hetty, a beautiful young dancer who would become, in Chaplin’s later memoir, an almost Arthurian figure) and Chaplin’s own poetic (if not somewhat inflated) prose he would pen for journals at the height of his fame romanticized those early years:

Lambeth, the land of concertina music! As I walk along the darkened streets, I hum to myself some of the old familiar tunes again:

“Why did I leave my little back room in Bloomsbury, Where I could live on a pound a week in luxury…” 

These old songs have their associations and a flood of memories surges through my mind. The streets are deserted and there is a slight mist. The houses are just visible in outline. Here in these humble quarters I walk along as though I were visiting some fairyland…. How often I have heard this waltz, refrain on a Saturday night played on concertinas by Cockney lads as they strolled by the house, the music gradually diminishing in the distance, dying off into the night. –Excerpt from A Comedian Sees The World, The Ladies Home Companion 1933.

When Sidney Chaplin successfully recruited his young half-brother to join powerful impresario Fred Karno’s music hall troupe (“Karno’s Army”) it was the music that became integral to the famous Karno pantomime.

From a 1952 BBC Interview:

“The [Karno sketches] had splendid music. For instance, if they had squalor surroundings with a lot of comedy tramps working in it, they ou see, they would have very beautiful boudoir music, something of the eighteenth century, very lush and very grandioso, just purely as satirical and as a counterpoint; and I copied a great deal from Mr. Fred Karno in that direction.”


His nearly intoxicating love of music led him to, at age 16 while still under Karno’s contract, learn the cello and violin. A defiant perfectionist, Chaplin would will himself to possess an adroit fluency with the strings that came with age– but at the onset, Chaplin’s natural comedic dexterity far outweighed any musical aspirations.

Chaplin may have left Karno for Keystone and Hollywood in 1914, but music would stay the rest of his life. A fact that would serve him grandly in the face of the silent comic’s greatest adversary: the talkies.

Now, Chaplin was by no means a musical prodigy (remember, he could neither read nor write music) and there are some critics to this day maintain he was never truly a bona-fide composer. I understand their arguments and court them, but resolutely disagree. It is true that Chaplin’s first works were far from polished, and his first scores not original compositions. They were, instead, dreamy gossamer re-imaginings of his favorite pieces. A patchwork quilt, if you will, of music hall memories.

In 1916, while newly contracted with The Mutual Film Company (anyone who thinks that the Mutuals aren’t his best shorts needs their head examined… or a Valium) Chaplin set up a music publishing shop in downtown Los Angeles called (ever so creatively) The Charlie Chaplin Music Publishing Company.

The sheet music for Chaplin’s “Oh! That Cello,” “The Peace Patrol” and “There’s Always One You Can’t Forget” would sell only a handful of copies. Downtown Los Angeles in 1916 was, simply, not Tin Pan Alley in 1916. Even a sky-rocketing name like Chaplin’s couldn’t attract interest. Not surprisingly, the company folded not long after.

Typed correspondence from the Charlie Chaplin Publishing Company that, prophetically, has nothing to do with music. The company lasted only a few months.
Sheet Music for “The Peace Patrol”

Also not surprisingly: Chaplin did not give up.

From the beginning, Chaplin acknowledged the symbiotic relationship between music in film. Others did as well– D.W. Griffith composed original music for some of his films and commissioned a score for Broken Blossoms— but none came remotely close to equaling Chaplin’s passion for telling stories shadow, light and music.

Chaplin allayed himself with well-established composers with whom he could collaborate.  Eric James and David Raskin are perhaps the most famous, helping Chaplin to find his voice, creating the unforgettable scores to the likes of Modern Times and Limelight. James and Raskin were more than mere helpers, they truly were tasked with translating to the page what Chaplin conceptualized in his mind. This meant that Chaplin, who was unable to read or speak in musical technicalities, would often “la-la-la” the melody to his musical arrangers and work with them, unrelentingly, to hone it.

Chaplin’s first such collaboration was with musician Frederick Stahlberg in 1923 for the daring directorial departure, A Woman of Paris. The film was his first venture as a truly independent filmmaker, under the creative protection of United Artists (of which he was a founding member) as well as his first dabbling in serious drama. Chaplin was already a director supreme, an auteur decades before that word had any real relevance, and his confidence was such that he made a decision that mystified everyone: A Woman of Paris would be a film by Charlie Chaplin without Charlie Chaplin. Hardly surprising, the public did not respond. After all, the public reasoned, “Who wants to see a Charlie Chaplin film without Charlie Chaplin?”

It flopped.

But the very few fortunate enough to have actually seen the film during its first run, would have also, in addition to witnessing the birth of a first-rate director, witnessed the birth of a pioneering film composer. This fact has more than its fair share of critics, but regardless of Chaplin’s musical merits the fact of the matter is inarguable: he was absolutely one of the first filmmakers to be just as passionate about the music of his films than any other creative aspect of the process. Something all the more remarkable given the fact that Chaplin’s enthusiasm for film scoring came about at a time when there was really no such thing as a film score.

Always drawn to musicians (his illustrious roster of acquaintances would come to include such 20th Century maestros as Igor Stravinsky) in 1925 Chaplin took a brief respite from filming The Gold Rush to team up with the highly popular Los Angeles-based bandleaders Abe Lyman and Gus Arnheim.  By way of perspective, during the gloriously delirious heyday of 1920s Hollywood, The Ambassador Hotel’s Coconut Grove was THE in-spot and Abe Lyman’s California Orchestra was the Ambassador Hotel’s big attraction. (Gus Arnheim was the pianist soon to make a major name in his own right.)  Lyman’s jaunty, jazz-age tunes sizzled nationwide over the KNX radio waves their 78 recordings (still very much in existence) are high examples of hot ‘20s West Coast jazz.

From this partnership came a composition that was, really for the first time, consummate Chaplin: “With You Dear, In Bombay.” While the original Brunswick 78 is tinny, the energy of the piece still comes through and marvelous re-recordings of this and other Chaplin compositions are available on the excellent album Oh! That Cello.

Charlie with Gus Arnheim (at the piano) and Abe Lyman.

Chaplin’s guest conducting Lyman’s orchestra was noted in Music Trade Review, July 1925:

 Film Comedian an Able Left-Handed Violinist and Recently Conducted Orchestra in Making of Brunswick Record.

Few of the admirers of Charlie Chaplin, the well-known film comedian, know that he is a composer or that he is much of a musician. As a matter of fact, however, he is quite accomplished in this direction. He studied the violin in his youth and is one of the few left-handed bow-players the world has known. He is also a conductor as was demonstrated by his ability in directing Abe Lyman’s Cocoanut Grove Orchestra when they recently made the recording of his new song “With You, Dear, In Bombay.” This record was made for the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company. Chaplin not only wielded the baton on this occasion but himself played the violin solo part of the recording. It is said that the Brunswick Co. has inaugurated a special publicity department and will feature this Chaplin recording. “With You, Dear, In Bombay” is published by M. Witmark & Sons. Chaplin wrote both the words and music. It is a lively fox-trot with an appealing swing and very tuneful melody. The Witmark Co. will exploit the number on a wide scale.

Chaplin (far left) on the violin while Sid Grauman sits at the piano, Mary Pickford sings and Douglas Fairbanks plays the bass.

That same year, Chaplin released one of the masterpieces of silent cinema– and indeed, cinema itself– The Gold Rush. Still years before the advent of talkies, Chaplin went to extraordinary lengths to protect the musical fidelity of his vision by composing a score to accompany the film, the sheet music of which was provided to theatres. Of course, Main Street Hollywood was light years from Main Street Anywhere, U.S.A., and Chaplin’s musical accompaniments were very often lost in the process. A fact which, to say the least, annoyed Chaplin The Perfectionist. (I could rightfully use the term ‘control freak’ but that smacks of disrespect: it was Chaplin’s obsessive behavior that made his films as perfect as they are.)

Someone who dedicated himself to recovering these lost, and highly important pieces of film history, was silent film composer Timothy Brock. Brock restored a number of Chaplin’s original scores and was instrumental in their public re-introduction in (cough) modern times.

There is a tendency to believe that Chaplin’s collaborations with his musical advisors merely consisted of Chaplin humming a tune while his associate took down the dictations. Chaplin himself made the remark, and it is actually a case of Chaplin giving himself too little credit. Brock described the process this way:

“Chaplin’s composing methods, as we all know perhaps by now, involved a “musical associate” who would transcribe what Chaplin composed, either on the piano or the violin. From there, Chaplin, sitting beside [City Lights musical advisor] Johnston on the piano would orchestrate each passage as he had heard it in his mind. The unfortunate quote that I and my colleagues have to contend with, that Chaplin simply “la-la-ed” his music to the arranger, was not only a self-deprecating remark but wholly inaccurate. He was as meticulous with his musical output as he was with his directorial results. In the original manuscripts there are pages and pages of rejected music that he deemed unworthy in the final cuts. It is clear by looking at these documents that Chaplin not only knew what was involved in composing just the perfect music for the scenes, but had the objectivity to discard what any normal director would probably have used. Therefore, there is not a note out of place in the entire score.”

Serenading Jackie Coogan on the set of THE KID

The production of Chaplin’s silent masterpiece, City Lights, was plagued by a state of neurotic paranoia. With so much at stake, Chaplin drove himself to the absolute limit on the picture– not to mention those he worked with– and while the result is pure cinematic perfection, the result is also nearly perfect film score.

Hollywood’s first synchronized film soundtrack was Warner Bros’ 1926 John Barrymore picture Don Juan, and of course with the advent of the talkies, music had taken on profound importance. But Chaplin, already a seasoned pro in this particular area of production, perhaps understood music and its relationship to narrative structure more than anyone else working at that pivotal silent/sound crossover. Although refusing to talk, Chaplin embraced this new technology with radiant enthusiasm as it finally allowed him to exercise complete control over musical accompaniment.  Relying on that patchwork quilt method of his, the City Lights score is seamless.

“His scores, within the boundaries that he set himself, are perfect,” remarked legendary silent film composer Carl Davis. “I would not change a note of them.”

“I use music as a counterpoint,” explained Chaplin. “ I learned that from the Fred Karno Company. For instance if they had squalid surroundings with a lot of comedy tramps working in it, they would have very beautiful, boudoir music, something of the 18th century, very lush and grandiose, and it would be satirical, a counterpoint.”

This style is highly evident in the original score for The Gold Rush and, of course, City Lights, (Jose Padilla’s “La Violetera” pitch perfect poignancy as the poor flower girl’s theme song) but also in his 1936 final silent feature Modern Times. (Flawed as it is, I love the ballsy, bad-ass nature of Modern Times: Chaplin effectively extending a prominently raised middle finger to anyone and everyone telling him what not to do and why not to do it.)

What would later become one of the 20th century’s most beloved standards, the sweet melancholy of “Smile” swirls in and out of Modern Times, framing moments of destitution and despair with sublime loveliness.

“Sometimes a musician would get pompous with me,” said Chaplin, “and I would cut him short: ‘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’.”

Carl Davis, very accurately, made this observation: “His assistants had a terrible time. It must have been torture. He was very, very moody.”

This, I’m sure, surprises no one.

But the simple fact remains: Charlie’s only competitive Oscar win was not for acting nor for directing (crimes, both) but for Best Original Score: the 1952 beauty Limelight.

Keaton and Chaplin on the set of LIMELIGHT

As Chaplin grew on in years, especially while living Swiss exile, so did his obsession with perfecting the sound of his silents. Chaplin’s final musical associate, Eric James, worked closely with Chaplin during his ailing years in the 1970s and, therefore, took on a much larger creative role than his predecessors.

In 1975, at the age of 86 (two years before his death) Chaplin and James worked on recording the score for A Woman of Paris. “As the years went by, Charlie found it more and more difficult to think of ideas for the music and left a great deal of it to me. … When I arrived to work with Charlie on A Woman of Paris, he looked quite weak and ill. I was very distressed to find him in such a state and I could see that he found even talking quite an effort. I therefore told him not to worry but that when I had finished each piece and played it over to him, he need only shake his head…”

In these later scores, Chaplin revisits the music hall memories of his youth, and grand music hall-esque string arrangements dominate the scores for Pay Day, The Kid, The Circus. It is, I think, fair to say that all of the Chaplin/James arrangements are Chaplin’s autumnal swan songs to that childhood that was so very much a part of his lifelong love affair with music.


Recommended listening:

Oh! That Cello (Beautiful arrangements of Chaplin’s early sheet music.)

Charlie Chaplin: The Original Music From His Movies (A marvelous, comprehensive collection of Chaplin’s film compositions.)

The Film Music of Charles Chaplin by Carl Davis. (This is out of print, but worth the digging. Got mine 8 years ago from a Russian e-bay seller and still cherish it.)

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