Smile — and Perhaps, a Tear: the Music of Charlie Chaplin

What is more eloquent than silence?

tumblr_m8ptmqI8Hp1qkdy8to1_500Charles Chaplin was one of cinema’s first — and perhaps still its greatest — auteur. He starred in, produced, directed, edited, wrote and scored the majority of his films, all while inventing the language of film. He did so as he defined the silent era, as well as transitioning into the modern times of talking pictures with inventiveness and artistic, if not mass commercial, achievement.

The side of Chaplin that is least appreciated or discussed is his role as music composer. Chaplin scored 18 of his feature films. He rescored several of his early “Little Tramp” silents in later decades, rereleasing the films with the newly recorded score, breathing into them new life which propelled them further into the modern era. At least four of the musical themes in his films were retailored into pop songs, at least one of which remains a timeless staple of the Great American Songbook.

As with many musicians, Chaplin remembered the exact moment music first made an impression on him. In My Autobiography, Chaplin recounts a time when, while wandering the streets of London as a boy, he first noticed music coming from a neighborhood pub.

Suddenly, there was music. Rapturous! It came from the vestibule of the White Hart corner pub, and resounded brilliantly in the empty square…I had never been conscious of melody before, but this one was beautiful and lyrical, so blithe and gay, so warm and reassuring. I forgot my despair and crossed the road to where the musicians were…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.

Music seemed to come to him naturally. While on tour with his traveling act as a young man, he made the acquaintance of Debussy, who was in the audience one night. The composer told Chaplin he was “instinctively a musician and a dancer.” He even formed a music publishing company in 1915 (which published only three songs). In fact, Chaplin’s only Oscar win was for his music, the score to Limelight.

Perhaps he is less appreciated as a composer because he was not a trained musician or orchestrator. Chaplin played the cello, violin, piano and organ, and he would pluck out or hum the melodic motifs he wanted to sync with the action on screen. He then worked with an orchestrator who would write out the score, filling in the harmonies and flourishes. These arrangers received deserved co-credit for the films’ music, although Chaplin remained hands-on throughout the process, working closely with these arrangers and personally conducting the orchestra. According to film historian Jeffrey Vance, “not a note in a Chaplin musical score was placed there without his assent.”

Chaplin’s scores are so perfect that they sometimes go unnoticed. Instead of using two-dimensional, obvious comedic cues, Chaplin’s scores are wistful and romantic, which help to underscore the comedy, and the humanity, on screen. Chaplin grew up in the British music hall tradition and he makes heavy use of the waltzes, tangos and two-steps that were so prevalent in music hall. His scores are almost ballet-like in their effect, lending a grace and narrative to supplement the dance-like action on screen. His use of leitmotifs — a recurring musical theme assigned to specific characters — gives his scores, and thus his films, their cohesiveness and familiarity.

When one hears the name Charlie Chaplin, one’s first thought is that of the Little Tramp. The two are inseparable. The Little Tramp made his first appearance in Chaplin’s second film, the Henry Lehrman-directed Kid Auto Races at Venice from 1914. Neither Chaplin’s performance nor the film itself is particularly interesting. Chaplin would develop his Tramp character over the years, creating a more refined, fully formed character. In Kid Auto Races at Venice, the Tramp is uncouth and rude, sticking out his tongue or making other unpleasant gestures. The Tramp as we came to know him, while hapless, would never be so boorish. Chaplin’s Tramp as he eventually developed him did not get indignant; he was always, in his own way, dignified. It was not until 1921, with The Kid, that Chaplin directed his first feature-length, fully realized Little Tramp film.

At the time, a theater’s house pianist or organist provided the music that accompanied film screenings. Usually the pieces were classical or popular ragtime or vaudeville numbers. Knowing he had something special with The Kid as a work of art, Chaplin knew that specific music would evoke specific emotional reactions to the action on screen. Chaplin sent theaters suggestions for the musical pieces to be played along with the film. This was his first step toward controlling the music of his films and thus a complete and total aesthetic. As he did with many of his early silent films, Chaplin (who passed away on Christmas Day, 1977 at the age of 88) composed a full score for The Kid in 1971.

The Kid is quintessential Chaplin. There is slapstick and silliness, but there are equal parts pathos and humanism, which give the humor a purpose. The scene in which agents from the orphanage and police come to take the kid away from the Tramp is particularly heart wrenching, and Chaplin’s 1971 score brilliantly reflects this. Believing they know what is best for the child’s welfare, agents of the state descend upon the Tramp’s modest dwellings to take the child into custody, breaking up, through force and violence, the unconventional yet loving home. The music accompanying this tragic moment is somber, melodramatic, almost terrifying. An emotive, romantic theme comes in as Jackie Coogan outstretches his arms. As the Tramp escapes to the roof, the score takes an upward turn with musical shades of optimism. As the famous rooftop chase sequence ensues, the music follows suit with a sweeping romantic theme providing a buoyancy that serves the emotions and storyline perfectly.

Although Chaplin had already made several dozen films by the time he formed United Artists with D.W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, the eight films he made for United Artists, including four Little Tramp films, remain his greatest work.

In 1942, Chaplin rescored the music to his first Tramp film made for United Artists: 1925’s The Gold Rush. The revised version consists of some original motifs and cues but mostly repurposed classical and folk music pieces, which reflect the romance and longing in his style. The rescore incorporates pieces from Brahms, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky, as well as the popular folk song “Coming Through the Rye.” Unfortunately, the 1942 rerelease suffers from one of Chaplin’s few creative missteps: his voice-over narration. The voice-over is superfluous considering that the lack of language is what helps to make Chaplin’s films universal.

Despite the controversial voice-over narration, The Gold Rush remains one of Chaplin’s finest films and the one for which he said he wished to be remembered. His thoughtful musical selections set it apart from other films of its era. It contains one of Chaplin’s most charming and best-remembered moments: the beloved “Oceana Roll dance.” Chaplin’s subtlety, grace and rhythm are never more prevalent.

As with The Gold Rush, Chaplin rescored the music to 1928’s The Circus in 1967. The new score begins with an original song sung by Chaplin over the opening credits as we watch a young woman swinging on a trapeze. There is a yearning in her demeanor, as she approaches and then retreats from the stationary camera, that is complemented by the reflective song. It is a lovely vignette that brings us into the world of these vagabond performers.

The Circus was released mere months after The Jazz Singer, the first talkie, which would forever change the world. Chaplin and his silent milieu were becoming as antiquated a form of entertainment as the traveling circus. In the original 1928 score, Chaplin uses Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” – the song Al Jolson sang to usher in a new era of cinema in The Jazz Singer – in a slow and melancholy way to score the final scene in which he is left behind, alone and obsolete, by the traveling show.

Chaplin would soon embrace sound, even making full talking pictures, but his foray into this new technology would be a gradual one. Over the next few films he would make, each one an unqualified masterpiece, he would find inventive ways to incorporate sound and music while still working within the framework of silent film.

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 grace and charm, to express sentiment, without which…a work of art is incomplete.

City Lights, his most romantic film, is the first in which Chaplin’s score remains unaltered from the original release. It begins with a great fanfare as we watch the dedication of a statue in a public square. Using the new technology, Chaplin incorporates sound effects into the opening sequence of the film. After the initial trumpets herald the beginning of the film, we see a politician giving a speech. But instead of words he produces nonsense syllables: a comment, perhaps, on the irrelevance of politicians’ empty rhetoric. The Little Tramp is then revealed to us sleeping on the monument. As the band begins to play “The Star Spangled Banner,” the action stops so that all — including the police and the Tramp himself — pause to place their hats over their hearts until the national anthem ends, and the madness begins again.

In one of Chaplin’s most poignant moments, the Tramp, while attempting to evade a policeman, meets a beautiful, blind young woman selling flowers. The sweeping theme that comes in is based on the Spanish composer Jose Padilla’s “La Violetera.” The sequence plays like a ballet. It is so well timed to the music and the actors’ business so well choreographed. It is an astonishing moment in cinema. Chaplin’s use of sound effects in the opening sequence has the feel of novelty but, here, he implies sound to advance the story and the characters. One simple sound — a car door closing — causes the flower girl to mistake the Tramp for a rich man — a plot device that is essential to the film, yet presented with such simple grace. Four years after the first talkie, Chaplin is still proving his mastery at the art of silent cinema. There is more going on in this scene, more humanity and emotion, character development and commentary than could ever be expressed with two minutes of dialog, and it is the music that holds it all together.

[Click here to view the scene on the TCM website.]

In the scene where The Tramp and his drunken millionaire friend raise an inebriated ruckus in a posh nightclub, Chaplin again uses his score to elevate the sequence. Instead of a cartoonish and chaotic score with xylophones and woodwind runs to accent the sight gags on screen, Chaplin uses a grandiose waltz and string section. Again, it is the choreography and synched timing to the music that makes the scene work. With his score, Chaplin raises the rather primitive gag of squirting someone with a soda siphon into something exquisite.

Modern Times, from 1936, is a film of the Depression. It isn’t so much overtly political as it is overtly societal. It is a film about people more than politics. Chaplin was a humanist and always had something to say in his films. His are not comedies for the sake of the gag; they reveal the very essence of humanity in the way of Frank Capra or Vittorio De Sica.

This humanism is no more evident than in Chaplin’s stunning love theme, better known as the pop standard “Smile.” Chaplin’s aching, melancholic melody is so loaded with pathos it borders on the saccharine. Lyrics were added 18 years later by songwriters John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons. Although Chaplin did not write the lyrics, he did write the film, and the lyrics borrow language and theme directly from the title cards in the film’s final sequence.

The Tramp and the girl awake after having spent the night outdoors, broke and on the run. The future could not be more bleak not only for these two, but for the country at large. When she finally breaks down — “What’s the use of trying?” — The Tramp (quite competently) comforts her — “Buck up — never say die. We’ll get along!” He then pantomimes a smiling gesture with his finger up and across his cheek. The Tramp, having finally got the girl, walks off with her down the road, hand in hand into the unfolding morning horizon, as the “Smile” melody plays, in what would be the Little Tramp’s final film appearance and Chaplin’s last silent feature.

It is such a simple concept, but one so difficult, if not impossible, to grasp on one’s own during times of strife. Turner and Parsons’ lyric with Chaplin’s melody are one of the great marriages in American popular song. Nat King Cole recorded the first version in 1954. It has since been covered by countless artists, most notably Tony Bennett’s definitive 1959 recording.

smilecover_m

The Great Dictator, Chaplin’s 1940 satire of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, was originally intended as a Napoleonic story but was eventually changed to comment on the current events unfolding in Europe. The film was made and released before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which thrust America into the global conflict that would become World War II. Chaplin said later that had he known the extent of the Holocaust at the time, he would not have made the film.

The Great Dictator is an unusual film for multiple reasons. For one, it is a comical satire of a sitting dictator who was engaged in the most horrific evils imaginable, yet it does not come off as inappropriate or insensitive. This is because Chaplin’s humanism and heart elevate the film above a simple parody of Hitler and Mussolini into something meaningful. It exposes the folly of the two fascist dictators, but it also takes us into the world of the Jewish ghetto in a heartfelt way. And of course Chaplin’s glorious speech at the end of the film serves as an uplifting beacon of freedom in world that at the time seemed cursed with an ever-closing darkness.

It is also unusual because it is Chaplin’s first talking picture, although it plays more like a silent-talkie hybrid. It is also the first Chaplin film that does not feature the Tramp character, although there are thinly veiled traces of the Tramp in the Jewish barber and to an extent in the Hynkel (Hitler) character, both played by Chaplin.

Chaplin was a fan of Wagner, who happened to be Hitler’s favorite composer and a notorious anti-Semite. Rather than avoiding this potential awkwardness through omission, Chaplin utilizes Wagner’s music in symbolic and clever ways. Chaplin scored the famous sequence in which Hynkel dances with the giant globe balloon with Wagner’s prelude to Lohengrin. The music is cut short when Hynkel squeezes too hard and the inflatable world bites back, bursting apart, as if to say it will never be yours.

Chaplin uses the Lohengrin prelude again at the end of the film to accompany the exquisite democracy speech given by the barber (who is disguised as Hynkel). Only here the piece returns and is allowed to finish and resolve as Chaplin’s grand monologue climaxes into his farewell voice-over message of hope.

Chaplin, as the Jewish barber, pays homage to his retired Little Tramp character in a marvelous scene where he shaves a customer in his barbershop. For the accompanying music, Chaplin uses Brahms’ Hungarian Dance #5. The scene was filmed before the score was finished or recorded. As such, Chaplin filmed the scene, in one continuous shot, along with a phonograph record of the Brahms piece. The orchestra later recorded the official score, with Chaplin conducting, in one complete take. The timing, of course, synched perfectly.

Hitler reportedly viewed the film at least twice. Whether he appreciated just how fully the joke was at his expense, or just how seriously the world would soon react, will never be known.

The Great Dictator was a transitional film — bridging the Little Tramp silent era and the post-Tramp talking films. 1947’s Monsieur Verdoux was Chaplin’s first full-fledged talking film and the first in which he played a character totally removed from the Little Tramp. As the opening credits inform, it is “An original story written by Charlie Chaplin based on an idea by Orson Welles.” Chaplin’s score here is noticeably different from his previous films. Because there is a full script of dialog, the score is scarcer and less busy, so as not to compete with the actors’ words.

With his Verdoux character, Chaplin proves his comedic genius can indeed translate into talking films and other non-Tramp characters. The score has a playfulness that works well with the absurdity of the Verdoux character. For example, in the scene where Verdoux is playing the piano, there is a rhythmic counterpart in the old woman knocking on the window. Yet there is a noir-ish quality to the score that heightens the black comedy of the film (which was billed as “a comedy of murders”). The score at times is reminiscent of a Bernard Herrmann Hitchcock score. Specifically, the use of strings in the first murder scene, with their high-pitched, staccato attack, foreshadows Herrmann’s classic “shower” theme from Psycho.

Limelight, from 1952, was intended to be Chaplin’s final film (it was indeed his final film for United Artists, and his last U.S. production). Chaplin plays a once-famous clown who is washed up, unable to sustain a career with his antiquated act among the changing public taste. Unlike his character, the real Chaplin never lost his artistic abilities, even as the silent era faded against the modern era of film. But by the 1950s he was certainly a relic from a bygone age and a bygone form of entertainment.

As with Modern Times, the main musical theme to Limelight was tailored into a pop song, “Eternally,” with lyrics added by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons, the same songwriters whose lyrics lifted “Smile” to eternity. Countless artists have covered the song, although English crooner Jimmy Young had the first and biggest hit in the United Kingdom in 1953.

Limelight is a swan song to the music hall and Chaplin’s past. A trio of vagabond street musicians plays as the camera zooms in on an old tramp-like photo. As Chaplin’s clown picks up his banjo to head out into the streets to earn money, he pauses reflectively: “It’s the tramp in me I suppose.” In another scene, when the young composer finally meets the dancer but is too nervous to speak, she comments: “What is more eloquent than silence?”

For the climactic finale in which Chaplin’s clown makes a triumphant return to the stage only to pass the torch to the young dancer, Chaplin enlisted his old friend and contemporary Buster Keaton. Chaplin and Keaton on screen together, well into middle age, are simply magic. And of course the routine they chose as their homage to their respective legacies is a musical one.

Chaplin, a violinist, adjusts his legs to appear shorter or taller as Keaton, his accompanist, drowns in a sea of showering sheet music. After several minutes of this setup, they begin to tune, Keaton playing higher and higher up the keyboard until Chaplin’s strings snap. Eventually the strings on the piano snap and entangle Chaplin whose violin is now worn on Keaton’s foot like a shoe. The madness ensues until Chaplin is eventually carried off stage, stuck inside a drum.

The score, which included an impressive 25-minute ballet sequence, won Chaplin his only competitive Oscar, in the Best Original Dramatic Score category, 20 years later in 1972 (his other statues were honorary awards). The film was originally released in 1952 but shunned upon initial release due to Chaplin’s supposed communist sympathies. When rereleased it was met with deserved critical acclaim.

Chaplin insisted he was never a communist; he was, always, a humanist. In fact, among the recurring themes prevalent throughout his work are the desire to live a life of quiet dignity outside of conventional societal norms, and the quest for betterment. These are anathema to communism. Chaplin was born into dire poverty on the streets of London only to become the highest paid entertainer in the world. If anything, Chaplin’s work celebrates the American Dream and the individuality of the human spirit. If the Little Tramp teaches us anything, it is that society is not a one-size-fits-all design, and that we as humans each have our own personal and unique concept of dignity and happiness and should be free to pursue such in our own peculiar way.

And yet the FBI, who had a file on the filmmaker, erroneously labeled him a communist, and Chaplin was forced into self-exile in Switzerland, where he spent the remainder of his life. He made his final two films in England.

Like so many of his films before it, A King in New York is rife with autobiography. Chaplin pulls no punches in his frustration with his treatment by McCarthian America. But the film is as much an indictment of the paparazzi and celebrity culture as the reactionary elements of the American Red Scare. Chaplin’s contempt for the frivolity and callousness of the press is clear, as well as the vacuous aspects of American culture at large. He eventually brings it full circle, equating political posturing with celebrity culture in ways prophetic and profound for 1957.

Although the film works as first-rate comedy independent of this commentary, the music, as always, reflects the subtext in the story. In the theme that plays over the opening credits, the orchestra suddenly quotes from a phrase of the “Star Spangled Banner” only to land disjointedly on an unexpected chord, which hangs for a moment unresolved until segueing into a light, jazzy theme. A beautiful old-fashioned music hall-style ballad is interrupted by a harsh wailing siren, as Chaplin’s character enters a theater where his ears are assaulted by an intentionally simplistic “rock ‘n’ roll” band playing an insidious boogie-woogie number (with lyrics such as “I got shoes / shoes to step on all your blues / when you do that rock ‘n’ roll with me tonight”). As the crowd of screaming teenage girls rushes the stage Chaplin, attempting to navigate the aisle to his seat, is caught in the madness, having to step over and around the young fans paying him no notice, fixated, as they are, on a new thing that has nothing to do with him and requires none of his talents. It is a quick but poignant moment, and Chaplin’s whole aura has the pathos of the Little Tramp. Music being of such importance in his life, it is no wonder Chaplin chose to reveal his character’s first taste of alienation with American popular culture through music.

Although the film is born from a place of frustration and anger, it also serves nicely as an on-screen farewell. There are shades of his life’s work throughout: from the photographer’s instruction to “smile,” to the cumbersome cane in the fire hose scene, to the near forgotten hat on the table, to finis.

Of course the film is not without self-awareness and good humor. Chaplin’s character is disgusted at the obscene amounts of money advertisers are willing to throw at him, scoffing at their offers only until learning he is broke. After his appearance on a reality television show everyone wants a piece: “Well I do hope you don’t mind these press photographers. One of the curses of the 20th century, I’m afraid.”

Whatever would Chaplin think of the 21st?

Chaplin’s final film, A Countess From Hong Kong, stands out as a unique entry in his catalog. It is the only film, other than 1923’s A Woman of Paris, in which he does not star (he appears in one scene in a small cameo). It is also the first and only of his films shot in color and in widescreen. Those differences aside, the film, which was made in 1967, shares many of the same themes as classic Chaplin, most notably, that of social class, dignity and the struggle to better oneself. Sophia Loren is a Russian countess but has been forced into a life of prostitution. Marlon Brando is a billionaire’s son — a far cry from the Tramp. In a reversal of gender, Loren’s character echoes the role of Tramp.

At this point in his career, Chaplin had developed great film-scoring instincts. One of Chaplin’s classic sweeping, romantic themes comes in as we see the first close-up on Loren. In another sequence Brando is showing his impatience with Loren by loudly running his fingers across a table. This builds a deliberate rhythm, which is juxtaposed against a light, bouncy string section. Chaplin even employs the use of a leitmotif for the ocean waves. The brilliant sequence in which the ship encounters choppy water and everyone on board becomes seasick is bookended with close-ups of the waves, accompanied by their musical theme. Chaplin, not surprisingly, also understood silence. In the scene where Brando chases Loren around the stateroom trying to rip his pajamas from her, Chaplin uses no score at all. The lack of music in this scene creates an uncomfortable silence that serves the scene well.

Sound plays a crucial role in the film. Most of the physical comedy is dependent upon the radio or the stateroom buzzer. A Countess From Hong Kong plays very much like a silent slapstick film, but most of the actors’ business is a reaction to the sound of the door buzzer and, as such, would not have worked as a silent film, despite the comedy not being dependent upon dialog.

Chaplin had written lyrics for a song he called “This is My Song,” based on the melody of the main theme, a version of which he planned to include in the film. The song was deliberately old-fashioned in style, and Chaplin was not satisfied with any of the singers they could find to record it in 1967 (his first choice, Al Jolson, had been dead for 17 years, much to Chaplin’s chagrin). Although the song was not included in the film, Petula Clark recorded “This is My Song” the same year, and it became a No. 1 record in the U.K., helping to relaunch her flailing career. At the age of 77, the great silent filmmaker from a lost era wrote a No. 1 pop hit.

Dichotomy runs throughout Chaplin’s entire aesthetic, and much of the romanticism and pathos in his films are reinforced or accentuated by his music, which heightens and reflects this duality.

With the Little Tramp, Chaplin created a basic vocabulary from which more complex thoughts and emotions could spring. The Tramp, as his anonymous moniker implies, is a dweller on the outskirts of society, yet he presents himself with his own kind of pride. Even his costume reflects this dichotomy. Chaplin chose the costume not for the specifics but for the overall effect: the Tramp’s coat is too tight, his pants too baggy, his hat too small and his shoes too large.

I wanted the clothes to be a mass of contradictions…The clothes seemed to imbue me with the spirit of the character. He actually became a man with a soul—a point of view.

The Little Tramp’s consistency of appearance and lack of dialog help to give him his universality, and shades of the Tramp run throughout Chaplin’s work. There are shades of the Tramp in the Jewish barber, and even Hynkel himself, in The Great Dictator. There are shades of the Tramp in Calvero the clown from Limelight, in the audacity of Monsieur Verdoux, in King Shahdov from A King in New York, and even Sophia Loren’s countess prostitute in A Countess from Hong Kong.

There are shades of the Tramp in each and every one of us, in anyone who has ever been embarrassed or humiliated, in all of us who seek love or strive to overcome our circumstances, to seek out a fair shake or a quiet place to call our own, be it a waterfront shanty or a cabin in the great icy nothingness. There are shades of the Tramp in all of us who have chosen to live our lives regardless of what society expects of us, in those of us who manage to find the poetry and grace in the absurd or unconventional. The Tramp is both a blank canvas for Chaplin to explore his humanism and a mirror to be held up to ourselves so that we may embrace our own.

Chaplin embraced sound, rather than avoiding it. And by doing so first with music instead of words, he created his most poignant work.

What is more eloquent than silence? Perhaps only music.

Matt is a writer, musician, lawyer and entrepreneur living in Venice Beach, California. He has a Bachelor of Music from Berklee College of Music in Boston and a Juris Doctor from Loyola Law School, Los Angeles. Matt plays guitar and writes songs for The Incredible Heavies, and his short story “Valley Dick” was published in the anthology Temporary Detective, a collection of modern noir. He often writes about music as a means to explore the interconnectivity of broader issues and themes.

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3 responses

  1. Brilliant piece on Chaplin – one of the best. Reflects a deep understanding and appreciation of Chaplin’s work. Powerful clips. Bravo.

  2. […] Smile – and Perhaps, a Tear: the Music of Charlie Chaplin […]

  3. […] Smile – and Perhaps, a Tear: the Music of Charlie Chaplin […]

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