Dance of the Rolls

Two forks, a couple of baked goods, and sixty seconds of pantomime bliss. It’s one of Chaplin’s and cinema’s most iconic scenes—the dance of the rolls from THE GOLD RUSH.

According to French journalist Robert Florey (who later served as associate director on MONSIEUR VERDOUX), “Long before he immortalized his ‘dance of the rolls’ on the screen, on many occasions when we lunched at Musso & Frank restaurant, Chaplin provided us with endless fun by draping a napkin round his neck like a curtain, spearing two rolls with forks and making them dance to the accompaniment of songs in the style of the [Eight] Lancashire Lads,” the British clog group that Chaplin had appeared with as a young boy.

Where does such inspiration come from? Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who had worked with Chaplin in a number of shorts at Keystone, earlier performed a roll dance in 1917’s THE ROUGH HOUSE, though the sequence is played strictly for laughs and is missing the grace and pathos that Chaplin creates in his scene. Did he learn it from Chaplin or the other way around? Or was this a dance Chaplin learned in the Lancashire Lads?

Chaplin filmed his dance in just three takes, refining it and completing the sequence in another eight retakes the following day. Over the two days of filming, bandleader Abe Lyman, with whom Chaplin recorded two promotional songs he had written (“Sing a Song” and “With You, Dear, In Bombay”), and a trio of musicians performed off camera so that all eleven takes were exactly the same length. Chaplin surely used the same music in each take but there is no record of what Lyman and his trio played to accompany the filming.

Gus Arnheim on piano, Chaplin, Abe Lyman

Chaplin’s title card for the sequence has the Tramp saying, “I’ll dance the Oceana Roll.” Lucien Denni’s popular 1911 song would have been instantly recognizable to audiences in 1925 and the tune would have fit into a story set in the late 1800s when ragtime was at its peak. So why didn’t Chaplin use the tune (or at least change the title card)? Perhaps he didn’t want to pay the necessary fees for a song still in copyright.

The cue in the orchestral score Chaplin compiled with Carli D. Elinor for the film’s 1925 premiere uses the traditional 18th century folk song “The Keel Row.” Chaplin’s dance certainly has a clog-like rhythm to it that fits the song’s circular, jaunty melody and even beat. But the music as heard in the compilation score comes across as monotonous and not nearly as charming as Chaplin’s own melody for the 1942 sound version of the film. (Pianist Neil Brand, who interpreted the compilation score for the reconstruction of the 1925 version of the film on DVD, keeps “The Keel Row” for the sequence.)

The cue title for the 1942 sound version may provide a clue to the origin of the sequence—”Mother’s Dance.” If the dance was, as Robert Florey mentioned, “in the style of the Lancashire Lads,” was this something Chaplin learned during his tenure with the clog group? If so, is “mother” the “loyal and dutiful wife” of Lads co-founder William Jackson, who, “although still nursing her son at her breast,” Chaplin later wrote, “worked hard at the management of the troupe” while they were on tour? Is it instead a dance that Chaplin’s own mother, Hannah, used to entertain him and his brother Sydney?

And what about the music composed for the 1942 version? The “Oceana Roll” cue (as it is listed on the piano score) originally used the melody for “The Keel Row.” But a handwritten note at the top indicates that Chaplin had considered other tunes as well, including “Tea for Two or City Lites” [sic], and Felix Arndt’s popular 1915 hit, “Nola.” Both “Tea for Two” and “Nola” would have also been instantly recognizable to 1925 audiences, but anachronistic with a story set in the late 1800s. And, again, there was the issue of copyright fees. It’s difficult to imagine any of the CITY LIGHTS music working in THE GOLD RUSH and whatever tune Chaplin had in mind remains a mystery. Instead, Chaplin and musical director Max Terr, who are listed as co-writers on most of the original tunes in the new score, composed a delightful cue that perfectly captures the magical moment.

The original piano score of the cue shows the melody with a combination of boxy dotted rhythms (perhaps left over from “The Keel Row”) and triplets.

Mother's Dance (Original Rhythm)

But pencil markings on the score show the dotted rhythms converted into triplets, which give the melody a skittering grace that matches Chaplin’s elegant movements on screen and propels the music forward.

Mother's Dance - THE GOLD RUSH

Whether the sequence began with the Eight Lancashire Lads, Roscoe Arbuckle, or elsewhere, it is Chaplin’s version that endures and the dance has been recreated numerous times on screen in homage. In Richard Attenborough’s 1992 Chaplin biopic, Robert Downey Jr. recreated the dance on a table in a restaurant, perhaps as a reference to Robert Florey’s memories of his experiences with Chaplin. The next year, Johnny Depp provided his own version in BENNY & JOON (1993). Amy Adams does a bit brief in THE MUPPETS (2011) and even Grampa Simpson gets into the act using potatoes in a 1994 episode of THE SIMPSONS.

For now, while I still hope to find verifiable proof to answer some of the questions I still have about the origins of the sequence, the cue name, and the music, I’ll let Chaplin have the last word—“if people know how it’s done, all the magic goes.”

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