In 1931, four years after THE JAZZ SINGER ushered in the sound era, Charlie Chaplin openly thumbed his nose at Hollywood’s new trend and released another silent picture—CITY LIGHTS. Against all odds, the tale of the Little Tramp who falls in love with a blind girl (Virginia Cherrill) was Chaplin’s biggest hit to date, further proof of his worldwide popularity. Chaplin had unprecedented control over his films—writing, acting, directing and producing them. Now with the advent of sound, he took on a new role—composer.
The recording capabilities of the period were still going through growing pains and not even the great Alfred Newman on the podium could overcome early sound’s limitations. So in 1989, Carl Davis reconstructed Chaplin’s score for live performances of the film. The reconstructed version was recently reissued on Davis’s own label.
Outside of the song “Smile” (taken from the love theme from MODERN TIMES) and Petula Clark’s hit rendition of “This Is My Song” (from A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG), Chaplin doesn’t receive much credit as a film composer. Chaplin had taught himself to play the violin and cello but he couldn’t read or write music. Instead, he used a string of musical associates to translate his amateur bowings, two- and three-finger piano playing, whistling and humming into a proper score. But Chaplin was no delegator. Testimony from later associates David Raksin and Eric James attest to his intimate involvement in every aspect of the music. The music for CITY LIGHTS is very much a product of its time, yet it serves as an excellent example of Chaplin’s strengths—and limitations—as a composer.
Chaplin uses three themes in relation to the blind girl. The first is José Padilla’s “La Violetera,” a sentimental melody that gets overused in the film yet is thankfully heard sparingly on the album. Next is a halting tango that gives poignancy to the unspoken paus de deux between the two lonely characters. Chaplin’s penchant for strings is evident in the yearning violin solos and duets that accompany the Tramp’s wooing of the blind girl in tracks such as “Eviction,” “The Limousine” and especially the heartbreaking “Reunited.”
There is a jaunty bassoon melody for the Tramp and woozy clarinets and strings stumble along with the drunk millionaire (Harry Myers) trying to commit suicide. Chaplin didn’t like Mickey Mouse music that accentuated the action, but examples such as “The Sober Dawn” and “The Morning After” have an innocent charm. Oscillating string sixteenth notes underscore the humor of “The Burglars,” while Chaplin channels his inner Bizet with a lively habanera for “The Boxing Match.” Chaplin also makes good use of the dance band arrangements of the jazz era. From the boxing match’s piercing trumpet solos to the muted trumpets and saxophones in the nightclub, Chaplin perfectly captures the sounds of the period.
After 80 years, the luster of CITY LIGHTS has not dimmed and Chaplin’s iconic screen presence is timeless. And for a first effort at film music composition, CITY LIGHTS was remarkably accomplished, thanks in no small part I’m sure to the involvement of Alfred Newman and head orchestrator Arthur Johnston. While Davis lovingly creates Chaplin’s intent, I prefer the sound Newman got from the orchestra on the original soundtrack, tinny and dated though it is. Timothy Brock reconstructed the score in 2004 from the original parts in the Chaplin archive and it is this version that comes to closest to Chaplin’s original.
Sweet, sentimental, comic, and dramatic—Chaplin’s music has it all. Chaplin said he “wanted no competition” with the music. He wanted it instead to be “a counterpoint of grace and charm. I tried to compose elegant and romantic music to frame my comedies.” “He always wanted music that was tuneful even if a little old-fashioned,” Eric James wrote in his autobiography Making Music with Charlie Chaplin. “He once commented that if the public didn’t like his picture they should be able to close their eyes and enjoy the music!” Tuneful, old fashioned and memorable, close your eyes and enjoy this charming disc.