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Charlie Chaplin: composer

We uncover Charlie Chaplin's musical career in advance of our screenings of City Lights this autumn.

Charlie Chaplin is one of the most recognisable figures of twentieth century cinema, as both an actor and a director.

But what is lesser known is that he was also a skilled musician, and composed the scores to many of his films.

In advance of this autumn’s screenings of City Lights with a live orchestra, Alexandra Coghlan uncovers Chaplin’s musical talents…

Charlie Chaplin was the ultimate cinematic polymath: actor, comedian, writer, director and impresario.

But when he eventually won his first Oscar in 1973 it wasn’t for any of those skills. The award was for Best Music – won by his own original score for Limelight.

Limelight was just one of the many film scores Chaplin composed during his career. It was perhaps inevitable that a man known for his meticulous attention to every detail of the filmmaking process, who had grown up in a family of musicians and music-hall performers and himself started his career as part of clog-dancing troupe Eight Lancashire Lads, would want to shape the scores of his films. Chaplin’s films use music not just as a backdrop but a key element of storytelling, capable of subverting and wrong-footing the audience as much as amplifying the on-screen action and emotions.

Crowd in front of a cinema in Paris for a Limelight screening
© Roy Export Co. Ltd.

Calvero in the dressing room with Postant and Buster Keaton
© Roy Export S.A.S

‘Since the age of 16 I had practised from four to six hours a day in my bedroom,’ Chaplin wrote in his autobiography. ‘Each week I took lessons from the theatre conductor or someone he recommended. I had great ambitions to be a concert artist, or, failing that, to use it in a vaudeville act.’ It was a passion that persisted throughout his life. Rachmaninov, Schoenberg, Horowitz and Hans Eisler were all later part of his social circle, and he was known to improvise piano duets with Les Six composer Germaine Tailleferre.

Chaplin’s interest in music had started early. As a child he taught himself to play the violin and cello (both strung in reverse to accommodate his left-handed playing) as well as the piano. But, having learned to play by ear, Chaplin never mastered reading music, and his film scores were always collaborative efforts with others – the reason, perhaps, so little was known for many years of his involvement. No credit, for example, was initially given to him for The Great Dictator, which he co-wrote.

Charlie Chaplin and Virginia Cherrill in City Lights © Roy Export S.A.S

‘I didn’t really write it,’ Chaplin said of the music for City Lights, the first of his films to have its own recorded score. ‘I la-laed and Arthur Johnston wrote it down.’ City Lights was a major watershed for Chaplin. It was the first of his films to be released after the advent of the ‘talkies’. With new technology available to him, Chaplin made the unexpected decision to keep the film silent and instead take advantage of the ability to record and synchronise music to the action. So delighted was he with this new dimension that he later went back and supplied soundtracks to his earlier work: at last every film would be completely and absolutely his creation.

While it would be easy to underestimate Chaplin’s musical contributions, Davis Raskin, who worked with Chaplin on Modern Times, made clear his very active and significant participation: not a single bar was signed off without his input and say-so. ‘Sometimes a musicians would get pompous with me, and I would cut him short’ Chaplin explained. ‘After putting music to one or two scores I began to look at a conductor’s score with a professional eye and to know whether a composition was over-orchestrated or not.’

Charlie by lever
© Roy Export S.A.S

Charles Chaplin plays the cello on “The Gold Rush” set
© Roy Export Co. Ltd.

Finding his feet with City Lights, Chaplin expressed his aim to create ‘simple’ music ‘in keeping’ with his character. The result is a larky, innocent and irresistibly tuneful score that sways to waltzes, and quotes snatches of melodies from London’s bells to ‘Swanee River’ and the flower-girl’s theme ‘La Violetera’ (a song originally composed by Jose Padilla), driving through action sequences like the boxing match and adding sardonic commentary and romance elsewhere.

‘I use music as a counterpoint,’ Chaplin famously said. ‘For instance…squalid surroundings with a lot of comedy tramps working in it…would have very beautiful boudoir music, very lush and grandiose, and it would be satirical, a counterpoint.’

It was a technique that often baffled arrangers, who wanted the music to be overtly and directly funny. It was Chaplin who insisted otherwise, understanding that comedy was unlocked far more effectively by surprise, subtlety, incongruity than by musical slapstick. The result are a series of scores who subtle detail and touching simplicity mirror the genius of Chaplin’s own performances.

Written by Alexandra Coghlan

Our screenings of City Lights with a live orchestra will take place on 19 and 20 November 2021

Image credits: Header image – Charlie with the Abe Lyman Orchestra at Chaplin Studios, 1925 © Roy Export Co. Ltd.

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