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For the Record

Tucked away slightly below ground level in a corner of an elementary school playground in Clarens, Switzerland, sits the Archives de Montreux. This small library houses not only the city records for Montreux, but the papers of Igor Stravinsky and Charlie Chaplin as well. While this charming, unassuming space seems an out-of-the-way place to store the Chaplin Archives and the records of two such important figures of the 20th century, it makes more sense when you take into account that the two had taken up residence in the area.

The bulk of Chaplin’s papers have been digitized by the Cineteca di Bologna and are available to initially research online. The thumbnail images can only be viewed in full at one of two computers at the Cineteca library. However, the online archive saves an inordinate amount of time. When I went to Bologna last summer for my first batch of research, my Excel spreadsheet had hundreds of entries that I wanted to view while I was there. Because I had done my initial research in the comfort of my own home, I was able to systematically go through the spreadsheet without a lot of wasted time. But because Chaplin’s music scores are not digitized, I made the trek to Switzerland. (UPDATE 2019: Most of Chaplin’s papers are now available to all online.)

When I left Switzerland on my last trip in October after four furious days of poring through scores and correspondence, I knew I didn’t get everything I needed. But I hesitated coming back because it’s an expensive trip. Still, I couldn’t complete the book properly knowing there were things left in the Archives that I had missed, so back I went. Some of the Chaplin musical goodies housed in the Archives include:

  • The original compilation scores for A WOMAN OF PARIS, THE GOLD RUSH and THE CIRCUS. It’s fascinating to see what audiences might have heard when the films premiered, such as the finale of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” Symphony foreshadowing doom over the opening A WOMAN OF PARIS or Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” lending ironic poignancy to the closing of THE CIRCUS.
  • The numerous cues written for THE GREAT DICTATOR, including two by David Raksin, for scenes which were later cut or played without music.
  • Sheet music for Chaplin’s early compositions like “The Peace Patrol” and “Oh! That Cello,” emblazoned with the Charlie Chaplin Music Publishing Co. logo.
  • Chaplin’s metronome.
Chaplin's metronome

This is just a small sampling of the musical riches preserved in the Chaplin Archives. Gingerly opening the scores for films like MONSIEUR VERDOUX, the yellowing tape binding together the pages cracking with age, it hits me that some of this music may not have been touched since the original recording sessions. Talk about ghosts hovering over me…

Properly telling the story of Chaplin’s musical history is a responsibility I don’t take lightly. I owe it not only to my readers but to the numerous people connected with Chaplin’s legacy—particularly at Association Chaplin in Paris, the physical archives in Montreux, and the digital ones in Bologna—who have helped me so much along the way. I don’t know how anyone can write a book on Chaplin without consulting his original papers, but there are writers who neglect these valuable resources and still attempt to tell various facets of Chaplin’s life. For the record, why bother?

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