HIS MUSICAL CAREER : Chaplin - The Perfect Composer
by Phil Posner (c)1995/2007

Watching "Modern Times" recently, paying particular attention to the music,
I came to a stunning realization.  The film, which I must have seen fifty
times, is 80% ballet, and the balletic feel of the film is due in no small
part to the music score.  Some of Chaplin's own actions looked as though
they could been performed like a ballet, to already composed music,
contrary to the way in which the vast majority of films (including this
one) are scored.  "Modern Times" could easily have been the source of W.C.
Fields famous comment on Chaplin, "The guy's a goddamned ballet dancer".
The score to this film struck me as wondrous, and got me thinking about and
listening to Chaplin's film scores in general, and prompted the writing of
this piece.

Chaplin's talent as a songwriter are well known.  Hooman Mehran, in his
article in the Spring 1995 edition of "Limelight", outlined Chaplin's
efforts to start a publishing company bearing his name and told of his
song writing ventures. 

Letterhead of Chaplin's music publishing company.


Sheet Music of Chaplin compositions and appearances on the covers of other's music

Chaplin's classic songs "Smile" and "Eternally", which began their existence as key themes in "Modern Times" and "Limelight" respectively, have become part of the standard pop repertoire. 

But his abilities as a film score composer were considerable and haven't
been given due appreciation.  In point of fact Chaplin was the PERFECT
composer for HIS films.

From the earliest days, virtually every movie house, from small town to
urban metropolis, had some kind of musical accompaniment to their silent
films.  Before the twenties, studios usually left the choice of music to
the resident musician or musical director. For major productions, studios
sent out cue sheets (lists of pieces to be played live along with
screenings of films), or sheet music, in arrangements ranging from single
piano or organ, all the way up to full orchestra. Popular songs of the day,
old-saw standards and classical music from many late romantic composers,
were all used to establish, evoke and support the mood of scenes whether
comedy or tragedy.

According to Kevin Brownlow in his "The Parade's Gone By", as early as 
1908 Saint-Saens composed the first music specifically for a film, 
"L'Assassinat du Duc de Guise".  D.W. Griffith had also composed some
music for his early films and later commissioned Louis Gottschalk to compose 
the score for "Broken Blossoms" (1919).

Chaplin was one of the first film makers to compose music for his own
films.  His first film scoring efforts came in 1921 with the initial
release of "The Kid", well before the advent of talking pictures. He
composed three themes used in the score to the film, otherwise comprised of
classical and other popular music of the day whose selection he probably

As Chaplin's fame increased he took increasing control of the production of
his films, from writing, directing, editing, and finally, with the
formation of United Artists in 1919, distribution.  It was logical that as
soon as he was able, he would desire to control the important element of
music. Chaplin had learned through years of experiment that in his style of
comedy emotional content was crucial, and that his control over mood and
emotion were essential to the audiences' appreciation of his character and
his story.   Therefore it was essential for him to carefully choose and
later compose the music for his creations.

Chaplin had little or no formal training in music.  He began playing violin
and cello in his days with Karno, taking lessons on the fly from various
musicians and conductors he encountered.  He played left handed, with the
strings and bridge reversed.  His love of music is well documented.  In "My
Trip Abroad", Chaplin describes his first awareness of the magic of music,
when as a child he first heard a duet of pub musicians playing "Honeysuckle
and the Bee"
, a popular music hall tune of the day.  He says, "I was just a
boy and its beauty was like some sweet mystery.  I did not understand.  I
only knew that I loved it and I became reverent as the sounds carried
themselves through my brain via my heart. ...It was played with such
feeling that I became conscious for the first time of what melody really

Chaplin posing with his beloved cello

Undoubtedly he had earlier contact with music through his parents who were
both popular performers of their day. Images of his father, Charles Chaplin, Sr., were featured on the covers of the sheet music of the songs which he presumably made popular.

Song featuring Charles Chaplin (the father).

His mother, a music hall singer professionally known as Lily Harley, must
have taught him many of the songs from her repertoire as a child.  Chaplin's
first appearance before an audience came at age five, when he replaced his
ailing mother on stage, singing "Jack Jones or `E Don't Know Where `e Are",
and having coins tossed at him from the audience.

In his early theatrical career Chaplin must have observed the effectiveness
of music in accompanying the various dramatic and comedic plays and
sketches in which he both performed and attended. The repertoires of Dan
Leno and other English music hall performers were well known to him.  In
America he also would have been exposed to all of the popular music forms
of the day such as ragtime, early jazz, the show tunes from Broadway and
the various classical composers.  All of these forms appear in Chaplin's
film scores, but it is how Chaplin uses these styles and incorporates them
into his own music, which works so perfectly with the characters and
situations he created, that sets him apart from most of his contemporaries.

Chaplin never made claim to being a classically trained composer and made
extensive use of arrangers and music directors for all of his films.  His
technique was to pick out tunes on a keyboard or on his beloved cello or
"la-la" or hum them to these able orchestrators while they transcribed them
into notation.  Chaplin had full approval on these arrangements or
orchestrations and no small amount of friction is said to have come from
artistic differences regarding these.  Chaplin also preferred conducting
the scores himself, something he seems to have had little problem doing,
due, no doubt to his natural ear for music, sense of timing and knowing on
an instinctive level what the scene required.

Chaplin was adamant that the music he composed for his films be simple,
elegant, romantic and not intentionally comedic.  As Chaplin scholar
Theodore Huff suggests, Chaplin, over the years, developed a musical style
that can only be described as Chaplinesque. 


The music that Chaplin composed for his silent films, that is from "A Dog's
Life" through "Modern Times" is markedly more of a factor in its influence
on the films.  The music which underscores the talkies necessarily had
competition in the soundtracks from dialogue and sound effects and was in
many cases less prevalent and influential.  However that is not to say that
music did not play key factors in all of those films.  There are however,
longer gaps without music, and those sections which required underscoring
beneath dialogue required a more neutral approach, as opposed to the music
from the silents which play an almost equal role to that of the visuals.

One of the first elements that writers speak of when discussing Chaplin's
film music was his use of leitmotifs: utilizing a recurring theme which
represents a particular character.  These can be heard in "City Lights", in
which he uses a wistful promenade theme to represent the Tramp and "La
for the blind flower girl.  It is used even when she isn't on
screen, to suggest her presence.  In the scene in which he first encounters
the Harry Myers character, the Tramp enters to a comedic theme, mimicking
his descent down the steps to the embankment. But when he takes the flower
from his lapel, and his thoughts are drawn to Virginia, we hear a gentle
echo of her theme.  In "Modern Times", the appearance of the Gamin is
almost always accompanied by a four note fanfare which is followed by
themes which state her mood or activity at that moment. 

Chaplin's leitmotifs not only represent characters but also concepts, such
as the idea of mechanization replacing the human worker, which is one of
the main subjects of "Modern Times", or the hustle and bustle of life in
the city represented by jazzy themes in "City Lights", "Modern Times", or
"A King in New York".  The opening strains of the "City Lights" score, four
triplets that occur often in the film, seem to signify a kind of "fate"
theme, which is heard whenever momentous things happen, such as when the
Tramp is knocked out in the boxing match or when he's finally arrested for
stealing the money for the flower girl's eye operation.

The opening themes of "Modern Times" (from the credits up to the first
factory scene) embody a serious approach to authority and the dichotomy
between the supposed benefits of the industrial age and the hardships of
the working and unemployed masses.  The same theme is used later over the
scenes depicting the Gamin's father and his financial problems, culminating
in his death.  The shots of the workers-as-sheep are accompanied by a kind
of mechanized stampede.  The Tramp's mounting mania on the assembly line is
underscored with a perfectly composed cue of rhythmic, mechanical feeling
music which increases in intensity, and the bee that pesters him is also
represented by a musical line.   For a full article on the music of "Modern 
Times"click on this link:

Just as important are themes which characterize and evoke the mood of a
scene, support the action, set the pacing, even tell us what to feel about
a particular character or situation. 

The most important aspect of these is mood.  Both in character and
situation Chaplin's music is always appropriate and supportive of the mood
of a scene.  He is best at his most simple, such as in the sustained string
lines at the end of "City Lights".  Also from that film is the lovely,
wistful Violin Caprice that is used as a moody leitmotif for Virginia, and
the heart rending sentimental theme that accompanies scenes such as the one
where Virginia discovers her rent is overdue.

The moving, emotional theme from "The Kid" which accompanies the dramatic
abduction and rescue of Jack contributes much to the impact of the scene,
especially when the Kid is pleading for his daddy.  This is probably one of
the themes that accompanied the film originally, so audiences have likely
always heard this piece over the scene. 

But just to prove the exception to the rule, there are moments in which the
music might work opposite to the mood of the scene.  In his score for "The
Circus" Chaplin continues his very archetypal "circus theme" over the
rather brutal beating of Merna by her father. 

For active comedy scenes there is exciting chase music like that which
accompanies the dogfight and later the chase around the lunch stand in "A
Dog's Life", or the boxing match in "City Lights".  A particularly good
example is the whole opening of "The Circus" with its chase around the fun
house and inside the hall of mirrors.  This action is supremely well
supported by Chaplin's score, which adds greatly to the excitement and to
the comedy of the moment.

Griffith once said in a piece for Liberty Magazine that the pacing of a
film was all important in determining its effect on an audience (and that
he could observe or feel if the scene was working to its desired effect by
taking his own pulse while watching).  In the same way, one can feel one's
pulse quicken and slow in response to Chaplin's underscoring and we can
observe this in turn effecting the pacing of his scenes.

Chaplin made extensive use of "stingers", brief musical statements which
underscore a moment or punctuate an action.  These can be found in all his
films, but notable examples are: a line in his score for "The Gold Rush"
which always represents danger, or one over the ubiquitous train wheels in
"Monsieur Verdoux".

Chaplin's music almost always takes itself seriously, unless a definite
spoof of a musical style is required, as in the Rock and Roll tune in "A King in
New York".  He very rarely accompanies his scenes with music which directly
mimics the action, known as "Mickey Mousing", for the way in which cartoons are
largely scored.  His music is usually elegant and rhythmic.  Many of his
cues are in dance tempi, the most prevalent being waltzes, tangos and two-
steps.  These dance rhythms work extremely well in accompanying Chaplin's
movements which have always seemed to incorporate elements of the dance,
both in scenes in which he was actually performing rhythmic movement as in
the factory ballet and skating scenes in "Modern Times", or in scenes in
which his movements are simply comically rhythmic, as in the "Noah's Ark"
scene in "The Circus".

In addition Chaplin had a well developed melodic sense, which is evident in
most of his music.  Some of his loveliest melodies accompany the female
characters in his films, such as the Violin Caprice that often is heard
behind scenes of Virginia in "City Lights" the theme which represents Merna
in "The Circus", the main "Georgia" music heard first in the opening credit
sequence in "The Gold Rush" and of course "Terry's Theme" from "Limelight".
Strong melodic content can also be found in the Tramp and City themes from
"City Lights", "Smile", from "Modern Times", and the main and rescue theme
from "The Kid".  Other notable Chaplin melodies can be heard in "Countess
from Hong Kong" ("This is My Song"), "A King in New York" ("Spring Song")
and the simple and charming "Swing Little Girl" (with vocal by Chaplin),
with which  "The Circus" begins.  Even when he was deliberately trying to
be maudlin or overly sentimental, as in Edna's song which brings everyone
comedically to tears in "A Dog's Life", Chaplin's melody, taken on its own,
is strikingly lovely and touching.

One of Chaplin's greatest achievements in scoring was his ballet music for
"Limelight".  For the first time Chaplin had to compose music for a segment
before it was shot, and he was quite nervous about how the principal
dancers, Melissa Hayden and Andre Eglevsky would react to his score.  He
was relieved, according to "My Autobiography," to find that they thought it
"balletique".  For the ballet he reuses his "Terry's Theme" ("Eternally"),
to introduce the story of the ballet and the Columbine character and later
expands it masterfully for the pas de deux and for Terry's solo.  Other
themes for the ballet include a simple tick-tock motif which represents the
clowns, and a bravura waltz for Eglevsky's solo.

Chaplin was not above reusing his own themes, which he does in many films.
One example is his use of the "Ten Days" theme from "Modern Times" in the
Appenroth Restaurant scene in "Limelight".  The music which accompanies
Edna's dismissal from the dance hall in "A Dog's Life" is the same music
which appears in "Shoulder Arms" when she finds the injured Charlie in her
bombed out bedroom. A waltz from "A Dog's Life" also appears in the
background in "Shoulder Arms" as well.  In addition there are often great
similarities in some of Chaplin's musical ideas.  The lovely "Coffee and
Cakes" from "A Dog's Life" is surprisingly like the Violin Caprice from
"City Lights" in its structure and halting, rubato (not in strict time)
phrasing.  These should not be considered as copying, but rather as the
manifestation of a developed style of writing.

Chaplin also paraphrased other composer's music in his films, both as a
kind of musical quotation, as in the case of "How Dry I Am" and
"Hallelujah, I'm a Bum" in "Modern Times"; "Comin' Through the Rye", "Loch
Lomond", "The Flight of the Bumblebee" and Tchaikovsky's "Sleeping Beauty"
in "The Gold Rush", and as complete pieces, as in the use of Brahms'
"Hungarian Rhapsody #5" to accompany Chaplin's shaving of Chester Conklin,
and Wagner's "Prelude to Lohengrin" for the globe ballet in "The Great
Dictator", and "La Violetera" for the flower girl's theme in "City Lights".
In "The Circus" the wedding celebration is accompanied by a quite Wagnerian
melody reminiscent of "Tannhauser". 

But it is Chaplin's original music that seems the most effective in
underscoring, in both the musical and literal senses of the word the
actions of his character, his story and the emotions and moods he wished to
evoke in his audiences.  No other composer could have so well framed these
moods and emotions for Chaplin's films.  He was the only composer to be
fully aware of these effects and was the perfect composer to attain them.

So, as Chaplin said, "No more of this yakety-yak talking", just watch the
films and open your ears.


Buster Keaton gives Chaplin a violin lesson on the set of "Limelight".

Chaplin conducting the scores for "A King in New York' (above) and "The Kid".

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