Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Music in His Life

The Barrymore Theater on W. 47th St. in NYC

The Chaplin name will brighten Broadway starting this August. That's when "Chaplin: The Musical" begins previews, with the opening set for Sept. 10, 2012. Rehearsals are scheduled to begin next week. 

Which leads me to the subject of Charlie and music, a connection that began when he was a young boy in London and which continued throughout his life. Charlie talks about seeing two street musicians in Kennington Cross:

"It was here that I first discovered music, or where I first learned its rare beauty, a beauty that has gladdened and haunted me from that moment. It all happened one night while I was there, about midnight. I recall the whole thing so distinctly.

"I was just a boy, and its beauty was like some sweet mystery. I did not understand. I only knew I loved it and I became reverent as the sounds carried themselves through my brain via my heart.

"I suddenly became aware of a harmonica and a clarinet playing a weird, harmonious message. I learned later that it was 'The Honeysuckle and the Bee.' It was played with such feeling that I became conscious for the first time of what melody really was. My first awakening to music."

That's the way Charlie remembered it in 1921, when he wrote "My Trip Abroad." In 1952 he talked about music during a BBC interview. Fred Karno was head of the music hall troupe that Charlie had joined before coming to the U.S.

"The Karno sketches had splendid music. For instance, if they had squalor surroundings with a lot of comedy tramps working in it, then, you see, they would have very beautiful boudoir music, something of the eighteenth century, very lush and very grandioso, just purely as satirical and as a counterpoint; and I copied a great deal from Mr. Fred Karno in that direction."

Charlie played the cello and the violin. Left-handed. He had the instruments restrung, reversing the sequence of the strings. To make this even more interesting, he was not classically trained in music and could not read or write music. Still, he heard it and realized its importance in his films. In 1926 he told a reporter:
"Music is extremely important....that is why I welcome the efforts being made to provide music by mechanical systems, such as the DeForest and the Vitaphone. Mechanical music which has the quality of a symphony orchestra is much better as an accompaniment than feeble vamping on a piano or the excruciating efforts of an incompetent or ill-led orchestra."

And as any Chaplin fan knows, he had zero tolerance for incompetence.

According to Eric James, Chaplin's music associate, "No one understood the power of musical accompaniment to film better than Charles Chaplin whose instinct for and exposure to music served him well as he began to construct his classic films." 

Chaplin's final film, his only one in color, was "A Countess from Hong Kong." As he did with many of his scores, he conducted, as in this shot from the recording session for that film. One final comment about Chaplin and his music: he wrote one of the most popular songs ever to come from a movie. The movie was "Modern Times," in 1936. The song was "Smile."

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