The Music of Modern Times

by Phil Posner ©2001


In the wake of the many live orchestra performances of Chaplin's films that have occurred over the past few years, much has been written about Chaplin's talents as a composer.  However, few writers have attempted to go into detail about what makes Chaplin scores work so well with his films.  This writer has already written a more generalized article on Chaplin as composer, but in this piece I intend to explore the music of arguably his best score, that of MODERN TIMES.


It may have been MODERN TIMES that prompted W.C. Fields to make that well known comment on Chaplin’s dancing abilities (although it’s just as likely to be THE GREAT DICTATOR).   Indeed parts of the film give the impression of being danced, performed to the score, rather than having the score composed and conducted to match the action, which is in fact how it was done.  In an interview which appears on the current DVD version of the film, David Raksin, Chaplin’s musical assistant and arranger for the film, credits conductor Alfred Newman with the perfect synchronization, but credit must also be given to the composer of the score, Chaplin himself.  Raksin and others have attested to the fact that Chaplin was involved in all stages of the composing/arranging/recording process and nothing went into the soundtrack without his approval.


The score is typical of the style Chaplin was developing (this was only his second attempt at composing a complete score) featuring leit-motifs (reoccurring musical phrases that represent certain characters or ideas), music hall and jazz style tunes and the occasional reference or use of other composer’s themes.  There is one hit tune in its inchoate form, the classic “Smile” and also the momentous performance of “Titina” in which Chaplin’s voice is heard on screen for the first time.


The opening scene presents us with the first major theme, the discordant, somewhat Gershwinesque fanfare that proclaims the portrayal of the industrial age with its theme of authority, industry and hardship.   This theme recurs throughout the film, in varying moods, as a leitmotif for struggle or the intervention of fate. 


The factory sequence provides Chaplin the opportunity to score directly to his balletic motions.  I must suggest here that at least some of the themes, or at least the rhythm and flow of the score must have been in Chaplin’s mind as he shot much of this segment.  In particular, the second factory segment, in which Charlie has his breakdown, is scored so closely that it appears to have been performed to the music. 


At Bench 5 of the Electro Steel Corp., Charlie tightens his nuts to the beat of the music, which clanks crazily to the sounds of industry.  The chromatically moving strings represent the bee that distracts him.  In the washroom, an elegant waltz characterizes Charlie’s short-lived leisure.


When the workers break for lunch, the music follows Charlie’s movements as he jerks involuntarily to the muscle memory his job has created, then Chaplin gives us a comic, plodding European melody that is called ‘At the Picture’ in the soundtrack album which supports by juxtaposition Chaplin’s attempts to eat his lunch  


The playful music that seems to symbolize the feeding machine is increasingly drowned out as the contraption malfunctions.  Chaplin had to deal with sound effects much more than he had to in CITY LIGHTS and he shows his command of the medium by letting the effect take over when necessary.



  Charlie Goes Crazy with Tiny Sanford

 and Heinie Conklin (aka Charlie Lynn)


The second factory sequence is the most ballet like in the film.  Chaplin’s breakdown begins as the speed of his conveyer belt (and that of the music) increases to a point where he cannot keep up and the machine swallows him whole to the accompaniment of a charming, mechanical, music box like moment in the otherwise frenetic theme.  He’s spat out again as the music seems to reverse itself, and exits the chute as a dancer, performing a mad ballet using his wrenches to tighten everything in sight, actions followed closely by musical hits or stingers.  His chases of the blonde secretary through the factory and of the buxom woman outside are both accompanied by music that seems to represent those characters.  His chase back into the factory continues the ballet at an increasingly mad pace.  A variation of the ‘fate’ theme first heard in the titles, heralds his capture and his parting shots from the oilcan are underlined and enhanced by the music.  


Charlie’s release from the hospital is made foreboding by the reuse of the fate theme which segues into “Hallelujah, I’m A Bum’, an IWW worker’s rights song from 1908 with lyrics by Harry McClintock that had been written to the melody of a popular hymn from 1863, “Revive Us Again”.  The tune seems particularly right for the Tramp character, as he wanders the streets.  It grows into a military march as Charlie accidentally becomes the leader of the protest and becomes almost an alarm upon the arrival of the police.



Paulette Goddard as the Gamin  


The Gamin is introduced by a four-note fanfare that will announce her appearance throughout the film. It is followed by a scurrying theme reminiscent of Prokofiev that supports her banana stealing actions.  We hear her next theme, the more sentimental “The Gamin”, as she comes home with her booty, which continues as she comforts her unemployed father. The theme suggests the irony of the father’s situation juxtaposed against the Gamin’s cheery spirit.


The music in the prison scene is based on the march we hear at the beginning of the segment.  It transmogrifies into a jaunty European sounding two-step as Charlie meets his cellmate and continues into the mess hall scene, in which Charlie inadvertently gets dosed with cocaine.  It rarely “mickey-mouses” the action (a temptation succumbed to by many composers who wrote for cartoons), but underscores Charlie’s reactions with mood and feeling rather than musical shots.  The jailbreak scene is appropriately underscored with tense active music.  When Charlie foils the escapees, there is a musical quote of the “Prisoner’s Song” (“If I had the wings of an angel, over these prison walls I would fly”).


The fate theme introduces ‘Trouble with the Unemployed”, transforms into a gentler variation when the Gamin appears, and follows the scene through her discovery of her murdered father.  A mournful tune plays while the authorities deal with the Gamin’s younger siblings, but the Gamin fanfare telegraphs her intention to escape.


The washroom waltz from the factory is reprised as we learn that Charlie is to be released from prison.  The starchy Minister and his wife are introduced by a comedic theme based on the prison march, but most of the scene is played without music to make room for all the stomach gurgles and dog barks in the sound effects track.


The fate theme appears again as Charlie is about to be released into the cruel world, this time in a tentative, hesitant mood.  Charlie’s short-lived boat building work is performed to the breezy “Charlie and the Warden” (as it is called on the soundtrack album).  It is one of the nicer melodies in the score having a slightly eastern European feel.  It segues into “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” after Charlie makes his fatal mistake with the wedge.


The Gamin is introduced with her fanfare again, which gives way to the beautiful pathos of “Alone and Hungry”.  Her “hurry” theme is used again as she steals the bread, and is interspersed with the previous poignant theme as Charlie confesses to her crime.  His efforts to get himself arrested are underscored first by a new theme and then with a reprise of the washroom waltz.  In the paddy wagon and during the escape we hear his prison theme, “Alone and Hungry”, the Gamin hurry theme and the fate theme all repeated.


We get our first exposure to the wonderful “Smile”, with its hopeful and sentimental mood underscoring the new couple as they sit by the side of the road.  The dream sequence is backed by an appropriately fantasy like theme.


Chaplin’s “In the City”, a cheery tune with jazzy touches,  a reworking of the boat-building theme, supports Charlie’s new job in the department store.  For the skating scene Chaplin goes against type by not giving us a waltz theme until after the Gamin rescues him from the precipice.   Chaplin’s lovely “Valse” carries forward to accompany the Gamin’s trying on the fur coat.  The Gamin music returns when Charlie puts her to bed.


The thieves’ introduction is well served by a “sneak” theme, and when the action starts, a variation on the restaurant scene music is used.   The fate theme reappears in a kind of drunken variant.  When Charlie is discovered under the cloth samples, there is a musical quotation of “How Dry I Am”, and his arrest reprises the ‘Hallelujah” music again.


“Ten Days” accompanies Charlie’s new home with Paulette.  Its graceful and cheery theme provides a contrast to the shabby surroundings.  The fate theme strongly heralds the news of the factory reopening and the industrial theme of the film’s opening plays as Charlie hurries to work.


A new march-like tune accompanies Charlie’s work with Conklin and has a mechanical feel that well represents the machine in motion.  The lunch break is taken to the tune of the European sounding “At the Picture” (whose title makes no sense unless there was a movie theater scene cut from the original version for which the theme was used).   ‘Hallelujah…” briefly reappears as Charlie and Chester learn that they’re on strike.  Charlie’s encounter with the police at the factory gate has one of the few instances where Chaplin’s music intentionally “mickey-mouses” the action as the cop’s gestures are underlined by the musical shots.  The fate theme reappears strongly as Charlie again meets the inside of the paddy wagon.


One of the most charming melodies in the film complements the Gamin’s street dance to the calliope.  It seems to be something akin to what Chaplin would have heard as a boy in the London streets.  It has a rather Italian style in its lilt, and is a bit reminiscent of “La Violetera” from CITY LIGHTS.


Charlie’s job interview music is very clever as it mimics the dialog and characters in the scene.  The low strings and winds represent Bergman’s manager and the high strings and flutes back the Gamin’s lines as the oboe haltingly plays Charlie’s hesitant replies.


The nightclub segment is scored with the klezmer-like tune called ‘Later That Night” on the soundtrack album.  Increasingly frantic dance tunes play in the club as Charlie tries to deliver the duck to his irate customer.  The band plays a varsity fight song when the football players make their entrance.  The singing waiters introduce themselves in music and begin their performance of ‘In the Evening by the Moonlight.” 


Charlie’s performance of Leo Daniderff’s classic “Je cherche après Titine” is so superbly pantomimed that, despite Chaplin’s nonsense lyrics, one is totally aware of the story of the song.   The lyrics, combining elements of French, Italian and Russian are below, transliterated as best I can:


Titina (Je Cherche apres Titine)


Music by Leo Daniderff.  Nonsense lyrics by Chaplin


Se Bella ciu satore, je notre so cafore

Je notre si cavore, je la tu, la ti, la tua


La spinach o la busho, cigaretto porta bello

Ce rakish spagaletto, si la tu, la ti, la tua


Senora Pilasina, voulez vous le taximeter,

Le zionta sous la sita, tu la tu, la tu, la wa


Se muntya si la moora, la sontya so gravora

La zontya (kiss) comme sora, (slap) Je la poose a ti la tua


Je notre so la mina, je notre so cosina

Je le se tro savita, je la tuss a vi la tua


Se motra so la sonta, chi vossa la travonta

Les zosha si katonta, (kiss) tra la la la, la la la


Les de, le ce, pawnbroka, Lee de ce peu how mucha

Lee ze contess e kroke, punka wa la, punka wa


The couple escapes from the authorities to another European dance type tune, and at dawn decide to go it together to the final version of “Smile”, which so well represents the dialog – “Buck up – never say die.  We’ll get along!” and likely gets its name from Charlie’s mimed encouragement of the Gamin to smile.



The Modern Times soundtrack lp was released on the United Artists label in 1959 to coincide with the film’s re-release in the United States.  To coincide with the film’s British re-release in the early 50s, ‘Smile’ was arranged in song form and given lyrics by Geoffrey Parsons and John Turner and recorded by Nat King Cole and later by Tony Bennett and a host of others.  It is one of Chaplin’s most important contributions to the popular music world, as is the entire musical soundtrack to the art of film scoring.



The Magical Ending

Back Home