Written during the composer’s middle period, it stands as a unique work. The Chaplin Revue is his first silent-film score written after his exile from the United States, and Chaplin now had the opportunity to spend more time composing after completing A King In New York in 1957. This was also the first score he wrote with his new musical associate, Eric James, with whom he ultimately had an 18-year collaboration. At age 70, it is from this point onward that Chaplin devoted much of his time to being a composer until his death in 1977.

Written during the composer’s middle period, it stands as a unique work. The Chaplin Revue is his first silent-film score written after his exile from the United States, and Chaplin now had the opportunity to spend more time composing after completing A King In New York in 1957. This was also the first score he wrote with his new musical associate, Eric James, with whom he ultimately had an 18-year collaboration. At age 70, it is from this point onward that Chaplin devoted much of his time to being a composer until his death in 1977.

 

Despite these three combined films being distinct in content and form, it is appropriate to think of them as a compositional whole. They were written in 1959 for purposes of a theatrical re-release, and have a germinal musical line throughout. Even the instrumentation of all three scores is identical, minus a few colorful additions such as the accordion in The Pilgrim, and the musical saw in A Dog’s Life.

 

A Dog’s Life has many of the musical trademarks we associate with Chaplin film scores. The “Teacake” sequence is the most prominent example of the musical Chaplin, where the tramp stealthily consumes an entire plate of cakes under the suspicious eyes of the lunch-wagon vendor, played by his real-life brother, Sydney Chaplin. A recitative for violin and harp composed in the immanent Chaplin style, these moments hark back to the ornamental violin and harp duos of City Lights, where the expressive and sympathetic tone of the tramp is most pronounced.

 

Chaplin also broke new ground for himself with the saloon scenes, which are Chaplin’s only dip into this field of cheap and dirty dance-hall music, despite the fact that many of his films contained similar scenes of this nature, in particular The Gold Rush. Chaplin even goes as far as to “un-tune” the piano in order to give the music that un-polished and disagreeable sound we associate with low-rent establishments.

 

Unusual by any degree of measure, is his choice for musical saw solo, accompanying Edna Purviance’s “sad song.” The scene has Edna performing an exceedingly sentimental song that produces prodigious streams of tears by everyone within earshot, including Spot the dog. To emulate this excessive weeping, the saw captures the tune beautifully in a wide-vibrato lament, that suggests the wordless tune itself is crying out to bygone memories and regret.

 

The Shoulder Arms score displays the Chaplin gift toward military marches, and the comedy therein, of the rigidity of soldier life. Like in The Great Dictator, written 20 years earlier, he composed music for both sides of the battle lines. There is a qualitative difference, however, between the two camps. On the allied side, the marches carry certain lightness, and in the case of the opening boot camp sequence, even a quotation of Onward, Christian Soldiers is made. On the German side the marches are heavy and militaristic, with the ever-present snare drum and fife, and have little or no variation.

 

Again the music as sound-description comes into play in Shoulder Arms. The tramp-soldier, ridiculously camouflaged as a tree in order to infiltrate enemy lines, shakes uncontrollably as German troops approach. The music has a nervous peculiarity to it; tunefully stiff (with woodblock obligato), as though he is skittishly whistling to calm himself while his knees knock in unbridled fear.

 

When army field-radio operations are on screen, Chaplin composed a melodic line (for the trombone playing with a tin-mute) that is sporadic and percussive, emulating the sound of a transmitted message through an antiquated earpiece. The effect is reminiscent of City Lights again, when in the opening sequence the official speeches are heard but are completely unintelligible.

 

The Pilgrim is perhaps the most musically sophisticated work of the three, and certainly the most “American.” It not only conjures up the dustbowl ballads of the American west (which by the way, does not include California), but pays a surprising musical respect to the propriety of the mid-western churchgoer.

 

The three church hymns, all written by Chaplin, are not what we would expect from a man who not only likes to poke fun at reverent society, but who was a famous agnostic freethinker. They are honest, deferential portrayals of solemn worship songs, lovingly orchestrated. The only humor incorporated into these hymns is the entrance of the celesta and glockenspiel obligato, emulating the sound of coins being dropped into the offertory plates, and also when Chaplin unwittingly continues singing a verse a cappella (oboe solo) as the congregation, having finished, watches silently.

 

Typical in a Chaplin score, The Pilgrim also juxtaposes the discordant and chaotic elements on screen with a musical framework of sobriety and dignity. The scene of “The Elopers,” for example, takes on a sprite and happy little tune as the father-of-the-bride, exploding in rage, chases the groom down the platform and tears the lovers apart. In another example the child-brat, recklessly ungoverned, causes absolute havoc on the Sunday afternoon gathering as a delicate and carefree moderato follows the ensuing violence with great composure and decorum.

 

The Chaplin Revue stands alone as the first truly silent-film score. And although he had seven scores under his belt by this time, this was the first of its kind, and a singular and novel entry into the Chaplin oeuvre.

 

My work on The Chaplin Revue was, at that time, only the second of seven successive score restorations I performed for the Chaplin estate. Working with the original scores, parts and sketches I completed my work over the course of 10 months in 2002 and conducted the live world premiere in Bologna at the Cinema Ritrovato festival the following year with the Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna.

Timothy Brock

 


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