The exhibition path
A self-taught musician from adolescence, Charlie Chaplin left the music hall scene for cinema at age twenty-five. With the invention of his Little Tramp persona (“Charlot”), he established the supremacy of pantomime. This dancing, almost musical body—with its universal language and movements dictating the timing of the editing—emerged as the poetic and comic mainspring in his art. In fact, when world cinema made the leap to talking pictures in 1927, Chaplin resisted and focused renewed energy on the musical eloquence of his films. He began composing the scores for all his works and invented his own brand of comic audio, in which music and sound effects played off each other.
In the beginning – Chaplin and the music hall
Born in a poor district of London on 16 April 1889, Charlie Chaplin showed artistic talent from an early age. His parents Charles and Hannah Chaplin were music hall singers, and Charlie began appearing on stage as a small child. He performed his first real role at age fourteen, and at age eighteen, thanks to his older half-brother Sydney, also a stage performer, he joined the company of Fred Karno, the greatest impresario in British vaudeville. There, he learned pantomime in sketch comedies, in which music and miming played a central role. This time in his youth is also when he began playing violin, practising several hours a day.
The world of music hall profoundly influenced Chaplin’s work, from A Night in the Show (1915) to Limelight (1952), in which he plays a washed-up actor, largely inspired by his own father.
« On this tour I carried my violin and cello. Since the age of sixteen I had practised from four to six hours a day in my bedroom. [...] I had great ambitions to be a concert artist, or, failing that, to use it in a vaudeville act, but as time went on I realised that I could never achieve excellence, so I gave it up »
A dancing body: invention of the Little Tramp
Charlie Chaplin's Comic Ballet in Sunnyside © Roy Export Co. Ltd
The Little Tramp with his funny waddle, or “Charlot” as he is called in France, appeared in 1914 with Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal. Within four years, Chaplin had risen to international fame; he had invented a truly unmistakeable character. In his first films, the humour was fierce, but gradually the cruelty gave way to an angelic, poetic version of the tramp. Chaplin used the musical dimension of his character as a comic and poetic device. The funniness lies in this body-in-motion, choreographed like the body of a dancer, perfectly in sync with the timing of the editing. It is a body constantly looking for balance, as if driven by competing forces, in action-reaction with the world around it. The silhouette of the tramp and his universal language instantly appealed to the imaginations of the public and avant-garde artists alike, as an embodiment of an art in motion.
Silent film, an art of sound
Cinema has never really been “silent”: from the earliest film screenings, pictures were accompanied by a pianist or multiple musicians, and sometimes sound effects. The music was improvised or compiled from a classical and popular repertoire. Each cinema was free to choose the musical accompaniment for the films it showed, and filmmakers had no say in the music selected. In 1918, Chaplin began taking great care with the music that accompanied a film’s premiere. He also played on the evocation of noise or music to clinch a plot or set up a gag (Police and Sunnyside). As he did not have control over the soundtrack, Chaplin used sound as a motif on the screen.
Charlie Chaplin, the composer
With the invention of sound film, Chaplin could finally be the master of the music for his works. From 1931 onwards, he composed all of his soundtracks, and some of his previous films were re-released with his own compositions as the accompaniment. He taught himself to play the violin and piano by ear, and dreamt of becoming a professional musician. Lacking formal musical training, he worked with arrangers to write the scores for the melodies he invented. From City Lights (1931) to A Countess from Hong Kong (1967), Chaplin experimented with different musical structures, from the jazz ensemble to the symphony orchestra. He never lost sight of a key principle from his years with Fred Karno: that the music should not compete with the visible funniness, but rather “be a counterpoint of grave and charm”. Though the sources range widely, drawn from a classical repertoire that could pack a dramatic punch, as well as from popular tunes, Chaplin’s unique brand of music remains instantly recognisable.
Charlie Chaplin’s joke on talking
« Occasionally I mused over the possibility of making a sound film, but the thought sickened me, for I realised I could never achieve the excellence of silent pictures. It would mean giving up my tramp character entirely. Some people suggested that the tramp might talk. This was unthinkable, for the first word he ever uttered would transform him into a different person. Besides, the matrix out of which he was born was as mute as the rags he wore. »
In 1927, when “talking pictures” became a reality, Chaplin, the uncontested star of silent film, resisted. Aware that his comic style reposed on his character’s body language, he carried on with pantomime, creating City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936), turning the tramp’s stubborn muteness into a statement . In this way, Chaplin crafted his own personal approach to the use of language, in order to enrich his cinematographic writing. He drew on the new possibilities at his disposal to reinvent his burlesque writing, introducing gags made only from sound, and meticulously synchronising his musical accompaniments. In the illustrative opening scene of City Lights, for example, noises—possibly from a saxophone beak—stand in for the mayor’s official speech, a parody of the mediocre sound quality for dialogue in some of the “talkies”, and a reflection of an America gripped by economic crisis.