Ever since I first brought up the subject of writing a book on the music of Charlie Chaplin to a close friend of mine nearly four years ago, the first question I’m always asked is “Why Charlie Chaplin?” (“Why Charlie?” sounds better for a headline.) I’m sure I gave him a reason though I’ll be damned if I can remember what it is. Now I dread the question. My stock answer is “I really should think of something clever.” But that hasn’t worked out so well.
I came to Charlie Chaplin back in my late teens through the music. Sure, I knew the song “Smile,” though I don’t remember if I knew (or cared) that Chaplin wrote the music, much less that it was a theme in MODERN TIMES. I had never seen a Chaplin film growing up. And it wasn’t until I became interested in film music at the age of 14 that I even had the desire to see a Chaplin film. And, again, the only reason was the music.
Once I discovered film music in the mid-’70s with THE OMEN, STAR WARS, and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, I used the yearly list of Oscar nominees to teach myself about the history of film music. At the time, I foolishly figured the Oscars were a barometer of quality. (Ah youth…) What that list gave me, however, was a course in Film Music 101. Without that list I may never have learned about Alfred Newman, Max Steiner, Bernard Herrmann, Alex North, and so many more. I also may have gone through life without having seen a Chaplin film.
Only three of Chaplin’s films have been up for music Oscars—THE GREAT DICTATOR, THE GOLD RUSH (1942 version), and LIMELIGHT—and for years those were the only three Chaplin films I had seen or even been interested in seeing. I only knew Meredith Willson (who worked on THE GREAT DICTATOR) as the composer of THE MUSIC MAN, and I had no clue who Max Terr, Ray Rasch, and Larry Russell were. (Terr worked on THE GOLD RUSH, and Rasch and Russell are part of the drama surrounding Chaplin’s Oscar for LIMELIGHT.) I didn’t find Chaplin funny (comedies seldom are when you watch them at home alone) and I didn’t get what all the fuss was about.
I knew Chaplin could not read or write music and, like so many, I stupidly wrote him off as a composer. And while I may not remember the defining moment that pushed me into writing the book, I do remember the two instances—one musical, one not—in Chaplin’s films that made me start to investigate his music as a possible subject to write about.
On a viewing of MODERN TIMES at home, yet again attempting to understand the appeal of Chaplin’s comedy, I came to the celebrated factory scene in which the Tramp has his breakdown. What caught my attention this time was not Chaplin’s ballet on screen, but his tone poem underscoring it. Here was an intricacy that had nothing to do with the sentimentality that I associated with his music. It was composed to complement the comedy and not take a backseat to it. After decades of studying film music, I could now hear the influences of David Raksin in the harmonic structure and Alfred Newman on the podium. This was not music written by someone with absolutely no musical ear. So if Chaplin couldn’t read or write music, who wrote it? Ah, the eternal question…
The other instance came towards the end of THE GOLD RUSH. The shack is tilting over the cliff and the Tramp is desperately hoping Big Jim (Mack Swain) can pull him to safety. In exasperation, the Tramp signals with his index finger for Big jim to “come here.” This is the moment I began to recognize Chaplin’s comic genius. Such a simple gesture. Blink and you’ll miss it. I’d seen the film a number of times, but this was the first time I laughed out loud at a Chaplin film. I wait for it every time I’ve seen it since and I still laugh out loud, even when I’m alone.
Those two instances served as the catalyst to investigate Chaplin further. Whether or not they actually can answer “Why Charlie?” is a mystery. Those brain cells are long since dead.