Long before 76 trombones hit the counterpoint, Meredith Willson worked with Charlie Chaplin on the score for THE GREAT DICTATOR, receiving an Oscar nomination in the process.
Born on May 18, 1902, in Mason City, Iowa, Willson moved to New York at age fourteen to study at the Institute of Musical Art, which later became known as the Juilliard School of Music. He studied composition with Mortimer Wilson and conducting with Henry Hadley, both of whom had dabbled in composing for silent films. Willson himself played in movie theaters in the Bronx to help meet expenses. At age 17, he played with John Philip Sousa’s band for three seasons before joining the New York Philharmonic in 1925. In 1932 he became NBC’s Western Division general music director and directed as many as seventeen radio programs a week over the next 10 years.
Chaplin approached Willson to work with him on THE GREAT DICTATOR after hearing a performance of Willson’s second symphony, The Missions of California, which premiered in April 1940 with Albert Coates and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “I was immensely flattered,” Willson said in the New York Herald Tribune, “for though I had never met Chaplin, I had seen every picture since his earlier two-reel days.
“I went to his house at once and we were hardly seated before he began talking about The Great Dictator. Throughout the afternoon he described it, acting out scene after scene with his marvelous pantomime, switching from his cultured English accent to Charlie, the tramp’s curious dialect. It was a strange feeling, being the first outsider to hear Charlie’s film voice—the one he uses in The Great Dictator.”
On July 24, 1940, Willson signed his 19-page contract as “musical director, to write, compose, orchestrate, arrange, prepare, rehearse, direct and record, and to supervise the writing, composition, orchestration, arrangement, preparation, rehearsal, direction, recordation and dubbing of, the complete musical score, musical sound track and cue sheet.” As with all Chaplin music contracts, Willson agreed that “any and all musical material which he may write or compose” would “automatically become [Chaplin’s] property as the author thereof.” Willson also acted as Chaplin’s agent “in employing all musicians, composers, and other necessary personnel, and in securing musical material, all salaries of persons so employed.” For this, Willson was paid $833.33 a week for six weeks.
While working with Chaplin was a full time gig, Willson had it built into his contract (and Chaplin surprisingly agreed) that he would have Tuesdays and Thursdays free to continue his radio work. And in a singular bit of generosity on Chaplin’s part, Willson received his own title card for his onscreen credit.
Chaplin’s process of working with Willson was different from the one he used with David Raksin on MODERN TIMES. Raksin and Chaplin worked “hand in hand” in the projection room, Raksin later recounted in a 1983 essay for The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress, where the two “worked together to extend and develop the musical ideas to fit what was on the screen.”
For Willson, “[Charlie] would come into the studio they had give me to work in, and he would have ideas to suggest—melodies. After that, he would leave me alone. When he came in to see me again I would show him what I was doing, and often he would have very good suggestions to make.”
“I have never met a man who devoted himself so completely to the ideal of perfection as Charlie Chaplin,” Willson said in the New York Herald Tribune. “During the two months I was associated with him on the music for The Great Dictator I was constantly amazed at his attention to detail, his feeling for the exact musical phrase or tempo to express the mood he wanted, and his ability to inspire the same fanatical zeal in those who work for him….Always he is seeking to ferret out every false note, however minor, from film or music. And Chaplin, though he professes to be only a layman in the matter of music, has a remarkably keen musical sense. His selective judgment is extraordinarily fine. If he had studied music instead of entering the theater he would have been a great musician.”
In his 1948 memoir And There I Stood With My Piccolo, Willson said, “He would have been great at anything—music, law, ballet dancing, or painting—house, sign, or portrait. I got the screen credit for The Great Dictator music score, but the best parts of it were all Charlie’s ideas.”