Charlie Chaplin’s Film Music Can Stand Alone and Provide Solace Today

While Charlie Chaplin's music may have been meant as accompaniment to his movies, it can stand alone and provide solace today.

Charlie Chaplin Film Music Anthology
Charlie Chaplin
Chant du Monde/PIAS
12 April 2019

More than 40 years after his death (and 130 years after his birth) Charlie Chaplin is still recognized as an iconic movie character (the tramp) and filmmaker, even by those who have never seen any of his flicks. His genius has been universally celebrated both before and after his blacklisting in America during the 1950s for his political views. Often overlooked, however, has been Chaplin’s talent as a musical composer. Although he began his career during the silent era, once sound technology became the norm Chaplin scored his own pictures, beginning with City Lights in 1931. While his compositions were meant to serve the films, Chaplin’s music taken on its own can charm and enchant.

The Chaplin Office in Paris, which manages Chaplin’s archives and represents the Chaplin family, has just released a new double CD set of extracts from the film soundtracks, appropriately entitled Charlie Chaplin Film Music Anthology. Chaplin could not read or write music, but this did not hinder him, as he would hum and sing the notes to associates who could. Chaplin’s proficiency was aided by the fact that he was an accomplished violinist and pianist—and was known to instruct musicians to imitate his distinctive style of playing.

The first CD features selections Chaplin composed in Hollywood between 1931-1952 from such films as City Lights, Modern Times, The Great Dictator, Gold Rush, Monsieur Verdoux, and Limelight. Most of the tracks are just one or two minutes as befits the screen activities such as the gold prospector eating his shoe or looking through a shop window at a pretty girl. The music conveys complex interior monologues in these silent movies. Rather than just presenting a mood, Chaplin’s compositions suggest the mix of feelings one experiences during quotidian activities.

Also included on the first disc is Chaplin singing a “Nonsense Song” from the silent Modern Times. It’s crooning in a made-up language that no one can understand, but the characters in the film react to suggest disdain for the manipulative lyrics. Chaplin engages in dramatic flourishes and humorous asides in a way that resembles a Marx Brothers’ parody. Ironically, the track is followed by an instrumental version from the end of the same movie, Chaplin’s best-known song, “Smile”, that became a big hit for Nat King Cole more than a decade after John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons gave it lyrics. After 32 cuts of music, the disc ends with Chaplin’s speeches at the end of The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux. Unfortunately, Chaplin’s condemnation of the greed and militarization of world leaders still seem relevant today.

Chaplin moved to Switzerland in 1952 and the second disc contains the music he composed in Europe. This includes extracts from his 1957 film, A King in New York and selections he composed and recorded to accompany his silent movies from 1918-1923, including A Dog’s Life, Shoulder Arms, The Pilgrim, The Circus, The Kid, The Idle Class, Payday, A Day’s Pleasure, Sunnyside, and A Woman of Paris. (Putting music on these films during the times of their original release was technologically impossible.) The liner notes explain that the tunes from The Countess of Hong Kong (1967) aren’t included because the Chaplin Archives doesn’t hold the rights to that material, which is a shame because the soundtrack was popular and yielded the Petula Clark hit “This Is My Song”.

The liner notes also contain the lyrics to the “Nonsense Song”—even though the words are made up and have no meaning—as well as to the few other tracks that have words and music. The best ones are the sendups of popular tunes from A King in New York and English baritone Matt Munro (best known for his hit rendition of “Born Free”) crooning “Bound for Texas” with lines that would make Mel Brooks smile (i.e., “To hear the moo and rattle of the snakes and cattle”).

The 67 tracks on this anthology express a bemused way of looking at the world. Chaplin understood the importance of this during troubled times as his career spanned two World Wars, a Great Depression, McCarthyism, and more. While Chaplin’s music may have been meant as an accompaniment to his movies, it can stand alone and provide solace today.