january 2011

gold rush

Re-creating Charlie Chaplin's Film Music

Charlie Chaplin responded to the arrival of sound by keeping his tramp mute and creating fabulous soundtracks. Composer Carl Davis recounts the challenge of reconstructing the master’s original scores

By Carl Davis

The three giants of 20th-century art are, for me, Picasso, Stravinsky and Chaplin. All three produced a tremendous amount of work—original, controversial and rewarding. Chaplin was a filmmaker in complete control of his art: conceiving, scripting, acting, directing, producing, editing and, strikingly, creating his own musical scores. His stimulus, as it is with all clowns, was the creation of a character—amusing, moving, the fate of whom constantly intrigues us. Whereas Buster Keaton was a frozen-faced stoic and Harold Lloyd had his empty-framed glasses, Chaplin had his "little tramp," the ups-and-downs (mostly downs) of whose existence shaped a story of human resilience. The tramp character, with his stubby moustache, bowler hat, oversized shoes and cane appeared on screen first in Hollywood in 1914 in a five-minute short called Kid Auto Races in Venice. His appeal was immediate and Chaplin's film career was launched. The tramp played until 1936 (ModernTimes).

Born in London at the end of the Victorian era, Chaplin emerged as a talented child performer in the frenzied world of the city's theatre and music hall in the first decade of the 1900s. With no musical education, he simply absorbed the musical life around him. The variety hall had orchestras, classically trained, and the bills also had musical acts, perhaps virtuoso string players. Chaplin was a superb mimic, and in his films always looked as though he was a musician—for example when he plays the violin in The Vagabond. The same with dancing: when his character, in the early shorts, was in a physically threatening situation, Chaplin would often launch into a series of classical ballet steps, astounding his attackers and enabling his escape. The songs and dances of the variety stage or music hall were part of his everyday life: waltzes, sentimental ballads, polkas, operatic arias, comic routines and heroic action sequences. Any stage activity had a musical accompaniment.

Charlie Chaplin conducting through the years: first, with the Abe Lyman Orchestra, conducting a 1925 session for a single issued on the Brunswick label, for which Chaplin stepped away from production on The Gold Rush; also, a session for 'Mandolin Serenade,' a composition he wrote for his 1957 film, A King In New York; and last, a short segment from his later years. Of the Abe Lyman Orchestra session, the Music Trade Review edition of July 18, 1925 reported: ‘Few of the admirers of Charlie Chaplin, the well-known film comedian, know that he is a composer or that he is much of a musician. As a matter of fact, however, he is quite accomplished in this direction He studied the violin in his youth and is one of the few left-handed bow-players the world has known. He is also a conductor as was demonstrated by his ability in directing Abe Lyman's Cocoanut Grove Orchestra when they recently made the recording of his new song ‘With You, Dear, In Bombay.’ This record was made for the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Co. Chaplin not only wielded the baton on this occasion but himself played the violin solo part of the recording. It is said that the Brunswick Co. has inaugurated a special publicity department and will feature this Chaplin recording. ‘With You, Dear, In Bombay’ is published by M. Witmark & Sons. Chaplin wrote both the words and music. It is a lively fox-trot with an appealing swing and very tuneful melody. The Witmark Co. will exploit the number on a wide scale.’

And cinema, when it became popular in the 1890s, did too—mostly improvised, mostly piano. Initially, one of the roles of music was to distract from the rackety noise of the projectors, but it was soon seen as a necessary means of making the images on screen live and breathe—to make the threatening more frightening and the comedy funnier. With the growth of the industry came a demand for printed music to fill hour on hour of film; these collections can still be found—music for every mood. While researching the score for Thames Television's Hollywood series in the 1970s, I had a revelatory meeting with the last organist at New York's Paramount Theatre, the delightful Ann Leaf, who opened a vast cupboard of scores and showed me her treasures: "This piece is good for chases," she said, "this for love scenes, that for orgies, biblical or Roman." For important premieres—Hollywood, New York and London—Chaplin would himself supervise the selection of music used in the performance.

city lights
In 1928 when he began work on City Lights, Chaplin had no idea that within a few years live music accompanying film would be swept away by the development of sound. By the time, two years later, he had finished shooting and editing, silent film had lost its interest for the public. Chaplin must have faced the most terrible crisis. Would the public accept the tramp if he spoke? Chaplin decided to keep him mute and instead created a soundtrack using recorded sound effects and a fabulous score. Now, he was really in control of the music and he knew how to use it.


The opening segment of Modern Times (1936)

Modern Times followed in 1936 with an even more ambitious score; Chaplin collaborated with the highly trained young composer, David Raksin, in a relationship marked by a series of arguments and rejections. We don't know why Chaplin returned to his 1925 masterpiece The Gold Rush in 1942, but it seems he needed some new product quickly and, to our good fortune, returned to past glories. He re-edited the film, created a score [Ed. Note: with composer-arranger, Max Terr, a Russian born, naturalized U.S. citizen, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture for his work on The Gold Rush] and wrote and read a narration, and that's the version of The Gold Rush we all grew up with.

The score has copious classical borrowings: Wagner's "Evening Star" from Tannhèuser to evoke starvation; Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumble Bee for a blizzard; Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty Waltz in a rough dance hall and throughout the film; Wagner's ominous Ring theme for the gold itself. There is some rather anonymous mood music, but one quote really foxed me because it was so superior to all the rest. Only when I began to research the score did I discover it to be a highly stretched version of a late Brahms Intermezzo. It was, of course, the love theme.

From the 1942 version of The Gold Rush: ‘The score has copious classical borrowings…’ (note: the narration in this clip is in German)

Hollywood, which was my first contact with Chaplin's music, led to a spinoff series in 1982, Unknown Chaplin. Its broadcast coincided with live screenings of complete silent feature films, mostly with newly composed scores by me. In 1989, to celebrate Chaplin's 100th birthday, my colleagues proposed an original idea: to persuade the Chaplin estate to give me access to Chaplin's original scores and parts used in the original recording of City Lights and to prepare a version that could be performed "live”—as if Chaplin had had that opportunity in 1931. Although I was experienced at creating a new score, recreating an existing one was a daunting prospect, chiefly because Chaplin revised his scores drastically and it was difficult to distinguish between the written score and what was actually on the soundtrack. It worked, however, and I began a sequence of live performances that took me from Hollywood to Tokyo, Tel Aviv to Istanbul.

gold rushI wanted more, and my colleagues suggested we look at the original 1925 version of The Gold Rush. I was allowed into the vaults under the Alps near Geneva where all the materials of Chaplin's working life are kept. There I examined the boxes containing the sketches and materials used for the 1942 revision. I found the sources of the pieces I could only guess at, as well as sketches for sequences that were in the 1925 version but cut in 1942. An additional problem was that we were going to screen the film at 22 frames per second, which would mean early sequences would be proportionately longer and the music would have to be extended. But, bit-by-bit, it came together and the newly edited score was given its live premiere in Liverpool, played by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in 1993.

The public that had loved City Lights came back to enjoy The Gold Rush in its full version—slightly more exposition at the beginning and far more explicit in the development of the character of Georgia. The end of the film now has a passionate kiss in close-up rather than the later version's ambiguous exit. Chaplin's lovely stretching of the Brahms Intermezzo is still there and I look forward to conducting once more those marvelous concluding chords.

Courtesy The Guardian, 1 January 2011

chaplin 2


About the Author:


Carl Davis CBE (born October 28, 1936, New York City, United States) is an American born conductor and composer who has made his home in the UK since 1961. In 1970 he married the English actress Jean Boht. Davis is a conductor with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and regularly conducts the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. He has written music for more than 100 television programs, a number of films (including The French Lieutenant’s Woman in 1981), but is best known for creating music to accompany silent films. Davis has assisted in the orchestration of the symphonic works of Paul McCartney.

From his Wikipedia entry:
In 1980 Davis was commissioned by documentarians Kevin Brownlow and David Gill to create music for Thames Television's Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film. His association with them continued the same year with Abel Gance's epic silent film Napoleon (originally 1927), which was restored and expanded with Davis' music for cinematic release. There was a similar treatment for D. W. Griffith's Intolerance: Love's Struggle Through The Ages (originally 1916). This had orchestral music originally, but Davis's new score was used instead in 1989.

The Hollywood documentary series was followed by the documentaries Unknown Chaplin in 1982, Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow in 1987 and Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius in 1989. In the 1980s and 1990s, Davis wrote and conducted the scores for numerous classic silent films released restored and released through Brownlow and Gill's "Thames Silents" series in the UK. By 1993, his reputation made him the number one choice for new scores to silent films. Many DVD releases, including Ben-Hur (1925), Safety Last (1923), Chaplin's City Lights (1931) (re-orchestrated by Davis based on Chaplin's original written score) and Erich von Stroheim's Greed (1924), use Davis's music and he did an entire re-scoring of Clarence Browns Majestic Flesh and the Devil (1927). In many of these recordings he is the conductor as well the composer. On several occasions he has performed these works live in the cinema, as well as in concert halls as the film is running.

At his personal website, Davis posts the latest news of his current projects, offers sample clips from DVDs, and has a Shop section offering his catalogue of CDs in either physical or download form.


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