Swing Little Girl

Even before the 1942 revision of THE GOLD RUSH, Chaplin mentioned in interviews a desire to rerelease THE CIRCUS with a newly composed score.

Released in 1928 only a few months after THE JAZZ SINGER ushered in the sound era, Chaplin had worked with composer Arthur Kay on compiling the score for the premiere. Later, in 1947, Hanns Eisler composed music for six scenes, a process that was interrupted when he was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee and eventually deported back to Germany. The music was eventually released as Eisler’s Septet No. 2. Following A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG’s poor reception in 1967, THE CIRCUS was to be the first of a string of rereleases of Chaplin’s remaining silent shorts and features, all with new Chaplin scores.

Musical associate Eric James began work on the score with Chaplin in October 1967. One of Chaplin’s most poignant melodies—”Swing Little Girl,” a halting, sweet waltz—underscores the opening credits and shots of Merna Kennedy swinging from the rafters of the big tent. A document in the Chaplin Archive details the opening verse that never made it into the film:

She worked in a circus.
She rode a white horse.
She worked on a flying trapeze,
But the audience she could not please.
When business was bad
And the clowns looked sad
She would smile
But tears were not far away
As she heard an old clown say:

Swing little girl, swing high to the sky,
And don’t ever look at the ground.
If you’re searching for rainbows
Look up to the sky—
You’ll never find rainbows
If you’re looking down.

Life may be dreary,
But never the same,
Some day it’s sun-shine—
Some day it’s rain—

So swing little girl
Swing high to the sky
And don’t ever look at the ground.
If you’re searching for rainbows
Look up to the sky,
But never—no never look down.

Chaplin asked James to arrange for someone who, according to James’ memoir Making Music with Charlie Chaplin, “specialized in singing the current pop songs of the day.” Chaplin was probably reveling in the royalties from “This Is My Song,” but “Swing Little Girl” did not have the earmarks of a pop hit. James contacted John McCarthy, the conductor and arranger for the Ambrosian Singers, who agreed to send over three men to make a demo record of the song.

The song was “extremely popular” with Oona and the rest of Chaplin’s family, “and Charlie would invariably burst into song whenever I played the introduction to it,” James remembered. “His voice…was anything but good, and yet it sounded quite effective when he sang this particular song. Maybe it was because he gave a performance that resembled the way a music hall or vaudeville artist would sing it.” As a result, James decided to have the orchestra parts written in Chaplin’s key, just in case the contract vocalist didn’t work out.

When vocalist Ken Barrie’s version of the song, “excellent though it was,” didn’t meet with James’ approval, he said to Chaplin, “Wouldn’t it be a nice idea if you were to make a recording so that Oona and all the family could enjoy hearing you sing ‘Swing High Little Girl’ [sic] with the back of this lovely orchestra?” Chaplin was 81 when he recorded the song. The voice, never particularly strong, wobbles with age, yet it lends an air of poignancy and authenticity that might have been missing from a professional singer.

After listening to the playback, both the two men recognized how much better Chaplin’s version was for the film. “Eric, you ‘conned’ me into doing that, didn’t you?”Chaplin told James. “I remember my reply,” James wrote,” which was to the effect that had I suggested it in Vevey, he would have immediately refused on principle to make a recording and so in order to get my way I had to resort to a little subterfuge—which fortunately came off!”

Even when performed live in concert, this portion of the film is appropriately heard with the film’s soundtrack and not a live orchestra, preserving Chaplin’s poignant performance intact.

Never underestimate the power of subterfuge.

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