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Filling a Gap: The Music of Charlie Chaplin by Jim Lochner

Modern Times (1936)

Modern Times (1936)

A Book Review by John Fawell.

I’ve always been somewhat surprised by the amount of critical attention paid to Charlie Chaplin’s sound films, considering they represent, for the most part, his comedic talents in decline and his frustrated efforts to contend with a medium essentially hostile to his genius for pantomimic satire. But modern critics have a bias for feature length films. And Chaplin’s late-in-career leftist politics have accorded Chaplin’s talkies a seriousness that pleases our ever increasingly political academic crowd, and so these films continue to get their outsized due.

But there is a strong argument to be made that Chaplin’s greatest artistic accomplishments, once the silent film industry shut down on him, were not in film but in music – in the rich and complex orchestral arrangements he composed and arranged, both for his sound films and for the silent film classics that he musically repackaged late in his career. If his talkies can seem, in their didacticism, to betray the principles of his silent film art, the music he wrote over the second half of his career seems of a piece with the charming pathos of his best silent film comedy. By the time of the talkies, Chaplin had really become too old to incarnate his alter ego – that ethereal sprite, Charlie the tramp – but in his music, the spirit of Charlie continues to dance with airy freedom.

978-0-7864-9611-2This is why Jim Lochner’s book, entitled, quite simply, The Music of Charlie Chaplin (McFarland, 2018), is such a welcome addition to the ocean of Chaplin critical studies. The book represents that rarest of things, a new Chaplin monograph that actually fills a gap in Chaplin studies. The book operates well on both the macroscopic and microscopic level, offering a fine view of the entire arc of Chaplin’s musical career and loads of fun detail along the way, as well. The book is meticulously researched; several of its chapters clock in with well over a hundred footnotes. And yet the wealth of information is fresh and entertaining. The reader is not likely to complain of fatigue.

One of the fruits of Lochner’s exhaustive research is that he weighs in ably on the many moments in Chaplin’s career where different accounts contradict each other. To cite one small example, Lochner notes that Meredith Willson, who helped Chaplin compose and arrange the music for The Great Dictator (1940), recalled in a newspaper article that he and Chaplin were able to record the music for the famous shaving scene, set to a Brahams Hungarian Dance, in just two takes. Years later, in his biography, Willson wittles the number of takes down to one. “Neither number was accurate,” Lochner drily notes, having reviewed the recording schedule in the Chaplin archives in Montreux, “it was actually four.” Little details like this convince us we are in sure hands in navigating the tumult of Chaplin’s musical career.

It is well that Lochner’s discernment is as measured as his research skills are thorough, because defining the nature of Chaplin’s musical talent is no easy task. Just gauging Chaplin’s mastery over the musical instruments he played (we know he could play, with some skill, the piano, organ, violin, and cello) is difficult. Studio publicity departments, friends bent on hagiography, and rapturous visitors to his home and set, who, as the Russians say, lie like an eyewitness, all tended to inflate Chaplin’s musical genius.

Then there is the question of what Chaplin’s contributions were to his orchestral accompaniments. He could not read music and certainly did nothing to enhance his musical reputation when he said, of the orchestral arrangements for City Lights (1931), “I really didn’t write it down. I la-laed and Arthur Johnston wrote it down. I wish you would give him the credit” (114). Many a critic took this kind of self-deprecation as proof positive of Chaplin’s musical dilettantism. Lochner notes that several of Chaplin’s collaborators tried to get him to master some rudiments of musical theory – Eric James suggested he study up on harmony and counterpoint – so that Chaplin could communicate better with them and with his musicians, but Chaplin steadfastly refused such advice. He told James that he “preferred to think freely, like a gypsy, and not be hemmed in by all the musical rules and inhibition by which most musicians are governed” (270).

Despite this kind of artistic posturing, and despite his amateurism, each of the composers Chaplin worked with on his orchestral arrangements came to be as impressed by Chaplin’s musical instincts as they were baffled by his amateur technique and exhausted by his martinet tyranny. One of the pleasures of this book is the wealth of very precise appreciation of Chaplin’s musical skill that Lochner has amassed on the part of Chaplin’s musical collaborators. “Chaplin,” wrote Willson, “though he professes to be only a layman in the matter of music, has a remarkably keen musical sense. His selective judgement is extraordinarily fine. If he had studied music instead of entering the theater he would have been a great musician” (150).

Lochner’s impressive research allows for a great many pleasures along the path of his narrative. He provides a rich account of the cue sheets and music compilations that accompanied Chaplin’s silent films to their theaters, during the silent film era, as well as the opening night musical extravaganzas that were concocted as Chaplin premieres came to be big events. He documents, in meticulous detail, Chaplin’s intermittent forays, starting very early in his film career, into musical publication, culminating in the 1950’s when two Chaplin melodies drawn from his films (“Eternally,” from Limelight and “Smile,” drawn retrospectively from The Gold Rush) reached the top of the pop charts. Lochner pays particular heed to the composers, conductors and musicians with whom Chaplin collaborated, noting their own histories in music and Hollywood and, in doing so, provides a vibrant account of the musical industry in Hollywood during Chaplin’s time and its relationship to that of Broadway.

Modern Times

The Great Dictator

One of the book’s greatest accomplishments is the way Lochner deftly mines the various memoirs of Chaplin’s musical collaborators for descriptions of Chaplin’s working methods when he created his orchestral arrangement. It is striking how, in many ways, Chaplin’s method of composing and arranging music paralleled his way of making a film. Chaplin made his films very intuitively, working his gags out on the spot, with endless takes, taxing himself and his co-workers to the point of desperation as he slowly refined his idea into a reality. His approach to writing music is notable for the same mixture of improvisation bordering on errancy, inefficiency, insane determination, boundless energy and capacity for work, and indifference to the comfort and patience of his coworkers. And yet, to a man, his collaborates praise the results, if not the methods that led to them.

The complexity of Chaplin’s orchestral arrangements for his sound-era films attests to his rabid perfectionism. Lochner notes that the official cue sheet list for Modern Times lists 110 cues. “The music,” Lochner tells us, “is such a challenge in live performance that Roy Export instructs Bourne Co., the current rights holder of most of Chaplin’s music, to only license the score conductors who have the ability to do it justice” (127). And yet if there is one aspect of Chaplin’s music talent that his collaborators uniformly respect it is his gift for simplicity. “Unless he can coordinate music with the action in such a way that the two play a duet,” Lochner cites Virgil Thompson as saying, “each commenting and heightening the other, he leaves it out altogether” (168). Chaplin’s genius was not for Wagnerian walls of sound but for deft little touches, “duets” of sound and image. He was as fey in musical composition as he was in his pantomime.

As impressive as the highly wrought orchestral accompaniments to his late films are, Lochner’s study also reminds us of the stirring musical effects Chaplin accomplished, on a smaller scale, when, late in his career, he created orchestral accompaniments for his greatest silent film classics. These scores are characterized, not by orchestral complexity, but by charming musical ideas. Think of the lighthearted, haphazard variations he came up with to accompany playboy Adolphe Menjou’s playful tootling on his saxophone in Woman of Paris or the accordion tango at the end of The Pilgrim, that was, like the tramp himself, both jaunty and melancholic. In some ways, these films, after they were scored, represent the richest expression of Chaplin’s art, his greatest mimetic comedy timed to music that Chaplin alone knew how to suit to Charlie’s antics.

Chaplin was a rhythmic artist well before he started writing music for his films. A cursory look at the immaculately timed climactic chase in The Adventurer tells us this. What is so refreshing about Jim Lochner’s The Music of Charlie Chaplin is that it moves us away from the endless nattering about Chaplin’s politics, which Chaplin himself conceded were not particularly well thought out, and reminds us of how skilled Chaplin was as a technician and formalist – how his films impress, first and foremost, as aesthetic accomplishments. Chaplin was a lyrical artist, not a didactic one. When it came to artistic expression, he was always at his best when he maintained his silence.

John W. Fawell is professor of humanities at Boston University. He is the author of The Essence of Chaplin: The Style, the Rhythm and the Grace of a Master (McFarland, 2014), Ernst Lubitsch’s The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg: the Art of Classic Hollywood (Lexington Books, 2018), Hitchcock’s Rear Window: The Well-Made Film (Southern Illinois University Press, 2001, 2004), and The Art of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West: A Critical Appreciation (McFarland, 2005).

Read also:

Henry Mancini: Reinventing Film Music (2012)

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