The Untold Labor That Helped Make Charlie Chaplin’s Film Scores

A new book shows that many of the director’s musical achievements were the result of unrecognized collaboration.

Charlie Chaplin on the set of Limelight in 1952 (Mary Evans / UNITED ARTISTS / Ronald Grant / Everett Collection)

To work with the great Charlie Chaplin meant suffering some of the most traumatic creative pains imaginable. One of the most pivotal filmmakers of the early Hollywood era, Chaplin developed a reputation for perfectionism. He worked some of his actors and crew into the ground until they quit, were fired for less-than-perfect quality, or collapsed from mental exhaustion. The opening scene of City Lights (1931)—wherein Chaplin’s signature childlike, vagrant character, the Tramp, is given a flower by the romantic lead, Virginia Cherrill—took an astounding 342 takes over the course of five days before Chaplin fired, and then rehired, Cherrill.

Stories of Chaplin’s onerous on-set demands are part and parcel of an enduring legacy, even if his treatment of collaborators isn’t considered legally or morally acceptable by contemporary standards. It’s impossible—perhaps redundant—to speculate on the extent to which Chaplin’s perfectionism was necessary to create his masterpieces. Yet society tends to correlate a ceaseless work ethic with high-quality craft.

While nightmarish production stories about legendary artists are worthy of dramatizing in biographical narratives, a failure to consider how artists’ mistreatment of others should shape their legacy is misguided. It can lead to lionization instead of a complete account of who they were as human beings. Jim Lochner’s The Music of Charlie Chaplin, a rare kind of film and music history book, doesn’t weigh in morally on the subject. But in its contextualization of Chaplin’s film scoring, the book provides vital insight into a person considered one of the most important figures of early cinema, and reveals an artist with a deep hunger for complete authorship.

The Music of Charlie Chaplin is rich in detail: the relentless effort Chaplin put into learning instruments, the musical influences in his work, samples of sheet music. The way Lochner fleshes out the behind-the-scenes drama of Chaplin’s scores, his workaholism, and deficiencies (where they existed) can be riveting. Chaplin taught himself how to play the violin and cello as a young man—but he couldn’t read a note. In an early draft for his 1952 film Limelight, one line epitomized the director’s personal struggle on this front. It read, “It takes time to play a violin if you want to be good at it; eight hours a day for five years.”

Eight hours a day for five years may also be the cumulative amount of time Chaplin spent communicating his unique musical vision to his musicians, a torturous exercise in creative collaboration. A few artists quoted in the book describe Chaplin sounding out his notes (“la-la-ing” or humming) or thematic ideas (e.g., “Wagnerian”) for each second of every scene, repeatedly changing the musician’s interpretation until it was exactly right, note for note. The often harried professionals would record these sounds in musical notation and take care of all the practical elements of producing: arranging, conducting, playing, recording, and so on. Yet Lochner doesn’t contend sufficiently with how such stories (some of which reveal an artist’s ugly sadism) are normalized as a result of society’s positive perceptions of artists’ work and persona. He neither glorifies nor criticizes Chaplin, instead defaulting to the role of historian, allowing the reader to decide.

According to Lochner’s text, Charlie Chaplin Jr. remarked that watching his father compose was like getting a “free performance,” but he admitted that the music associates “suffered pure torture.” This certainly proved to be true on the set of Modern Times (1936). Orchestrator Edward Powell nearly lost his eyesight from concentrating so hard on writing the music. The young, ambitious David Raksin, hired by Powell to help orchestrate and arrange the music with Chaplin, toiled 20-hour days, lost 25 pounds, and was often so exhausted that he’d sleep in the studio. After working similarly long days, the conductor Alfred Newman broke under the pressure, threw his baton across the stage, and yelled at his boss when Chaplin, having taken a break from the studio while the others plugged away, derisively said, “I’m tired of this stalling.” Newman refused to come back. The book’s narration underscores how one artist’s punctilious tendencies manifested through self-imposed exacting demands, and it considers the sometimes deleterious effect they had on others.

While admiration for Chaplin’s work is evident in Lochner’s detail of the filmmaker’s musical decisions, the writer is uninterested in hagiography and sheds considerable light on Chaplin’s ruthless business acumen. Chaplin often requested that his musicians sign a contract wherein he was deemed the sole composer. (The exact wording was that the music “was entirely written, composed and/or arranged by Charles Chaplin, and you agree not to make or issue, or authorize the making or issuance of, any statement or claim in contraction thereof.”) Artists legally signed away their authorship regardless of how involved they were in the composition or arrangement, or if they eventually received credit elsewhere. For example, the re-release of The Gold Rush credits Chaplin for its “original compositions” and the musician Max Terr as “musical director,” but it’s Terr’s name, not Chaplin’s, on the nomination ballot for Best Film Score at the 15th Academy Awards in 1943.

This level of egoism (or self-protection, depending on how one perceives Chaplin’s careerism) turned into an absurd debacle when Chaplin, Raymond Rasch, and Larry Russell won Best Original Dramatic Score for Limelight at the 1973 Academy Awards. The film was re-released two decades after Chaplin’s supposed Communist sympathies prevented a proper theatrical release in 1952. Leading up to the Oscars, a flurry of miscommunication over who should be named on the ballot opened a Pandora’s box of legal problems. Lochner devotes 11 pages to the complicated brouhaha, an entertaining epilogue that would make for a thrilling HBO miniseries. According to the book, the Limelight debacle impelled the Music Branch of the Academy to change its parameters of film composer to account for “unschooled musicians”:

Those who collaborate with him in extending his thematic or motival ideas into a score as such must, for Academy Award consideration, be given co-composing credit … It is the position of the Music Branch that those who collaborate in a substantial way in so developing song themes, ideas, themes, or motifs into an extended score are not merely arrangers and/or orchestrators, they are indeed and in fact co-composers.

The language used in the Academy’s updated parameters was a tough but just reprimand for Chaplin. Though there’s little doubt that he wrote his music, Lochner offers sufficient evidence that Chaplin’s music associates could be considered co-composers of his work.

Movies are an inherently collaborative process. Yet the influences of collaborators can often be discounted, contributing to a less-than-complete picture of how a filmmaker such as Chaplin created his films, and thereby supporting a mythologized ideal of auteurs and their processes. Historical accounts of visionaries can sometimes fail to contextualize the help they received. (One quintessential example is Alma Reville*, Alfred Hitchcock’s wife and co-screenwriter, who never received her due.) When the broader culture fails to account for collaborators’ experiences and influence on the auteur’s work, it can contribute to a less-than-complete picture of the artist as a person and support a false mythology of the auteur as a singular artist. The Music of Charlie Chaplin is a pointed yet fair reminder that even a genius entertainer like Chaplin couldn’t do it all.

*This article originally misidentified Alfred Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville, as Alice Reville.