Modern Times recording session

The Night Newman Quit

On December 4, 1935, the air on the MODERN TIMES recording stage was crackling with tension. Chaplin had already postponed the film’s original premiere date (October 11) because he was dissatisfied with the ending and particularly the music. He even threatened to record an entirely new score to replace it. Finally, after two weeks of recording, there was light at the end of the tunnel. But with only 200 feet of film left to be recorded, it all blew up.

Working on the score over the last couple of months had taken its toll on conductor Alfred Newman; David Raksin, the film’s brash young 23-year-old arranger; and Edward Powell, Raksin’s fellow orchestrator. Raksin described Chaplin as “a total autocrat. He had his own studio and was the one hundred percent complete boss of it.” But Raksin “never accepted the notion that it is my job merely to echo the ideas of those who employ me . . . I had no fear of opposing [Chaplin] when necessary, because I believed he would recognize the value of an independent mind close at hand.”

After only a week and a half on the job, Raksin told Chaplin one day, “I think we can do better than that,” and was summarily fired. “To Charlie this was insubordination—and the culprit had to go.” Powell delivered the blow to his friend, who was living in Powell’s home studio. The studio’s daily production report, which had not even listed Raksin by name up to this point, merely reported on September 21, “New arranger reported this A.M.,” though there is no record of who this new arranger was.

Two days later, Raksin was re-hired, but that was just the beginning. According to Charles Chaplin, Jr., Raksin, Powell, and Newman “endured pure torture. Dad wore them all out.” Powell “concentrated so hard writing the music down that he almost lost his eyesight and had to go to a specialist to save it.” Raksin, “working an average of twenty hours a day, lost twenty-five pounds and sometimes was so exhausted that he couldn’t find strength to go home but would sleep on the studio floor. Al Newman saw him one day in the studio street walking along with tears running down his cheeks.”

Happier times on the MODERN TIMES soundstage: Charles Dunworth, inventor of the system of visual cues for synchronization; conductor Alfred Newman; Chaplin; arranger and co-orchestrator David Raksin; recording engineer Paul Neal; and co-orchestrator Edward Powell. Photo by Max Autrey, c. November 1935.

Newman, United Artists’ musical director and Chaplin’s conductor on CITY LIGHTS, was back on the podium. The 61-member orchestra consisted of “the best virtuosi in Hollywood,” said Raksin, “which is saying the best virtuosi in the world.” Recording sessions began at United Artists on November 18.

Newman liked to work in the small hours of the night, often working 16 hours a day and sleeping at the studio to finish the recordings in time for the film’s premiere. When the sessions were over for the day, Powell and Raksin had to keep “one jump ahead of the copyists and the orchestra, to provide the music for the next recordings,” Raksin said, “so we would usually resume work on the orchestrations when everyone else had gone home.” After a while “we were both ready to be carted away from sheer exhaustion.”

Chaplin normally had great respect for the musicians in the orchestra, with many of the recording sessions turning into Chaplin performances. But MODERN TIMES was different. “He criticized the orchestration and the way the musicians played,” reported The New York Times. “He demanded rewrites of much of it and many parts were recorded twenty or thirty times. When all but 200 feet had been recorded, an explosion occurred that furnished the town with a gay morsel of conversation.”

On December 4, Newman noticed that Raksin looked sick and gave him the night off from attending the recording session. “I must have been pretty well worn out to agree to miss the session, but it was either that or collapse.” That night, Chaplin returned from a dinner given to H. G. Wells and, seating himself beside Newman, said, “I’m tired of this stalling.” “It was too much for the distraught conductor,” said the Times article. “He hurled his baton across the stage and unburdened himself of all the opinions he had kept smothered during the weeks of recording. Chaplin, who, in his younger days, had a reputation for pugnacity, sat there without moving. He hadn’t been talked to that way in twenty years. Newman reviewed every incident that had occurred during the scoring, to the delight of the orchestra, and then walked off the stage. Attempts were made to bring him back to complete the picture, but he refused.”

Newman “finally broke under the pressure,” Charles Chaplin, Jr. later wrote in his autobiography. “With only two hundred feet more of sound track to go, and after endless changes and grueling work night and day for weeks, his nerves were as taut as though they had been subjected to the Chinese water torture. He just exploded one day and called my father every name he could think of, throwing his baton all the way across the stage to emphasize what he was saying. Then he stalked out, went to his suite in the building across from the stage, tossed down a half pint of whiskey to calm his nerves and phoned [Samuel] Goldwyn to tell him he was through. Nor would he go back, despite pleas and pressure.”

When Raksin found out about the altercation the next morning, Goldwyn executives told him he was expected to take over and conduct the remaining sessions. “I realized later that they would have enjoyed watching me struggle with the temptation offered by such an opportunity,” Raksin said, “believing that ambition was certain to supersede whatever loyalty I might feel toward Newman. But I replied that if what they had told me about the circumstances was true, then Charlie had been at fault and owed Al and the orchestra an apology; also that I would not consent to anything that would hurt Al or weaken his position.” Instead, the studio invoked Powell’s contract and he was forced to complete the sessions.

Raksin’s loyalty to Newman resulted in an estrangement from Chaplin that lasted for years. “Chaplin remained cordial,” Raksin said, “but he was offended that, having been caught in the cross fire between him and Newman, I had sided with Al. I guess he did not understand how hard that was for me to do. We parted without formalities.” Though Raksin contributed a couple of klezmer pieces to THE GREAT DICTATOR that never made it into the final film, it would be years before his former cordiality with Chaplin resumed.

With Powell now on the podium, Raksin claimed he finished most of the remaining orchestrations, “and the recordings tapered off in a rather sad spirit.” But the daily production reports tell a different story, saying “Engaged Ross” on December 10, though there is no mention of who exactly Ross was. The mysterious “Ross” worked until four o’clock the morning of December 12, 5:30 the following morning, and until 4:30 the morning of Saturday, December 14. “Ross and arrangers” worked Saturday night and Sunday while Chaplin went to Cecil B. De Mille’s ranch for the weekend.

“Ross” and his arrangers rescored only a handful of cues. Most notably different is the unused main title sequence with sixteenth notes substituted for triplets in the fanfare and a flurry of scalar runs and trills in the woodwinds and strings. Chaplin did not like what he called a “drowned sound” in the orchestra. “It’s like a piece of film out of focus.” And no doubt the texture of Ross’s revision was too thick for Chaplin’s taste. Sections of the opening sheep montage were also rescored, in particular, the two bars of syncopation, as was nearly all of the first prison scene and the delightful theme that underscores Charlie and the Gamin in their dilapidated shack. Recording sessions resumed on December 16 and lasted until 6:00 a.m. the following morning. One brief session was held on December 17 from 7:00 to 11:00 p.m., and the tense recording of MODERN TIMES finally came to an end.

Some years later, Raksin saw Chaplin at the ballet. Raksin did not want “to risk being snubbed . . . but Paulette was also looking around, and when she saw me she nudged Charlie and waved, indicating that I was to come over during intermission. . . . [Charlie] was so charming and affectionate that our differences seemed to have evaporated. [Chaplin’s guest Konrad] Bercovici later told me that when we returned to our seats Charlie said, laughing, ‘There goes the only man who ever defied me and lived to talk about it!’” Raksin made his final visit to the studio the day before Chaplin’s departure from America in 1952. “How odd to think that I met Charlie on my first day in Hollywood,” Raksin later remembered, “and I said goodbye to him on his last day there.”

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