The date Chaplin met German composer Hanns Eisler varies. Eisler went into exile in 1933 after the Nazi Party banned his music, though he wasn’t officially allowed into the U.S. until 1940, thanks in no small part to the intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt.
The earliest mention of their meeting (though the date seems questionable) comes from Robert Lewis, who starred with Chaplin in MONSIEUR VERDOUX. In his autobiography, Slings and Arrows: Theater In My Life, Lewis mentions a party at Clifford Odets’ house in the late 1930s, in which “Charlie remarked how wonderfully ironic it would be if the German composer would contribute the music for The Great Dictator. . . . Hanns bowed and said it would be an honor to work with such a film master.
“Charlie moved to the piano. ‘For instance, here’s a tune I’ve been working on,’ he said, and with one finger he picked out a simple, pleasant melody. ‘What would you do with that?’ Rushing to the piano stool, Eisler went to work. ‘We might arrange something like this,’ said Hanns. He then built the tune into a charming little piece with marvelously original harmonies.
“‘That’s fine, Hanns,’ said Charlie, reclaiming the piano seat, ‘but what I meant was more in this vein.’ He then repeated his original few simple bars, exactly as he had played them the fist time.
‘Ah, I see what you mean,’ said Hanns with all the ingratiation he could summon. ‘Let me give you another approach.’ This time he improvised a completely unadorned, but still enchanting, versio nof the tune.
‘That’s beautiful,’ Charlie assured Hanns, ‘But actually what I need is something like this.’ Again he picked out his same original notes. It was clear that even Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart couldn’t shake Charlie from what he heard in his head.”
As enticing as the prospect of Eisler’s musical fingerprint on the GREAT DICTATOR score is, and whether the Odets story is true or apocryphal, Lewis was probably right that this was “an example of the hopelessness of artistic collaboration with Charlie,” at least where it concerned these two artists. But Eisler wasn’t done with Chaplin—or his films—yet.
In a 1972 interview, Eisler spoke about his work on MONSIEUR VERDOUX. “I helped [Charlie] out with Verdoux; it was painful in that he composed everything himself. . . . When I was with him he would have some fabulous inspiration and I was supposed to take it down immediately. And I arranged some of it. . . . That was just a matter of friendship. But straight after that, as I was in difficulties with the ‘Unamerican Committee’ [HUAC], we put together a real contract; I should compose music to the silent film, Circus. I started to do some sketches. Then, as I said before, I was dragged before this ‘Unamerican Committee,’ was also arrested, and that put an end to it. That was a difficult fight and I couldn’t do any more film music.”
A letter dated September 16, 1947, in the Hanns Eisler Papers at the University of Southern California lays out the proposed agreement for Eisler’s work on the proposed rerelease of THE CIRCUS. “My usual salary for a motion picture is $7,500,” Eisler wrote. “This includes all orchestral arrangements. Of course The Circus needs more music than any other film I composed. But it is up to Mr. Chaplin to decide what salary he wants to pay me. I also like to mention the fact, that my scoring of the picture will be done with the greatest economy. I am using mostly 10 to 12 instruments. I don’t think that a special contract is necessary between us. Please let me know by letter, what Mr. Chaplin has deceided [sic].”
Eisler arranged the six cues he score for THE CIRCUS into his Septet No. 2. The six movements of the septet are specifically scored for certain scenes in the film, though the performance order of the chamber doesn’t follow the film order:
- Mealtime after the show (Mvt I)
- Early the Next Morning (Mvt II)
- The Tryout (Mvt VI)
- The Circus Prospers (Mvt V)
- A Sick Horse (Mvt IV)
- In the Same Night (Mvt III)
On February 28, 1948, a benefit concert of Eisler’s music, which included the septet, was organized Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, David Diamond, Roy Harris, Walter Piston, Roger Sessions, and Randall Thompson in defense of Eisler, who had been branded “The Karl Marx of Music” and denounced by his sister in front of HUAC.
Chaplin appealed to Pablo Picasso to put together a committee of French artists whose public letter to the U.S. embassy in Paris was published in Les lettres françaises. Signed by Picasso, Henri Matisse, Jean Cocteau, Georges Auric, and many others, the letter stated that Eisler’s extradition to the “American zone” in Germany would mean he would be incarcerated as a Nazi together with other Nazis. But on March 26, Eisler bid a bitter, final farewell to the U.S. from the tarmac at LaGuardia Airport—the first victim of the Hollywood blacklist.
Even with the musical risks Chaplin took with his score for VERDOUX (which may have been influenced by Eisler), it’s doubtful Chaplin would have seen eye to eye with Eisler’s musical vision for THE CIRCUS. But the septet provides a fascinating window into another musician’s interpretation of Chaplin.