Catalina Island News

"City Lights" Features an Orchestral Score Written by Charlie Chaplin Himself

Catalina Island Museum

Although Charlie Chaplin is universally known as the silent screen's greatest comedian, less well known is his work as a composer and musician, who wrote some of the most acclaimed scores ever put to film.

In his book on Chaplin, Theodore Huff wrote that Chaplin’s score for City Lights is one of the finest examples of “a musical score, which properly interprets the action and heightens the emotion.”

This year’s Catalina Island Museum Silent Film Benefit will be the first to feature a full 39-piece symphony orchestra, accompanying Chaplin’s masterpiece, City Lights.

Chaplin’s film is unique, for it was made after talkies had already been introduced.  Chaplin was reluctant, however, to abandon the emphasis that silent film’s placed on pantomime.  But the advent of sound did lend one distinct advantage to Chaplin: the opportunity to compose his own music to accompany the film.

Chaplin once recalled that he “tried to compose elegant and romantic music to frame my comedies in contrast to the tramp character, for elegant music gave my comedies an emotional dimension.  Musical arrangers rarely understood this. They wanted the music to be funny. But I would explain that I wanted no competition, I wanted the music to be a counterpoint of grave and charm, to express sentiment.”

Although Chaplin was never formally trained and could neither read nor write music fluently, he knew intuitively what he wanted in terms of instrumentation, melody and rhythm. For the City Lights score, Chaplin explained: “I really didn’t write it down, I la-laed and Arthur Johnston wrote it down. It is all simple music, you know, in keeping with my character.”

After filming was complete, Chaplin worked with Johnston for three weeks arranging the score for City Lights. Another three weeks were spent with the orchestra, recording the music and synchronizing it with the film.

“Nothing is more adventurous and exciting than to hear the tunes one has composed played for the first time by a fifty piece orchestra,” Chaplin remarked in his autobiography.

The Catalina Island Museum will present Chaplin’s acclaimed silent masterpiece, City Lights, on Saturday, May 17th in the Avalon Casino Theater. For the first time in the Silent Film Benefit’s 27-year history, the film will be accompanied by a live symphony orchestra. Grammy Award-winning conductor Richard Kaufman will conduct a 39-piece orchestra performing the original score composed by Charlie Chaplin himself.

Tickets for this year’s Silent Film Benefit are on sale now! Tickets are $15 for members of the museum, $18 for general admission.  Arrive in your best 1920’s dress and receive a 50% discount on admission to the Silent Film Benefit!  Prizes will be awarded to the best-dressed individual and couple.

Purchasing tickets is easy. Please call 310-510-2414, visit the museum in person, go to the Silent Film event page on our website or mail your payment to Catalina Island Museum, PO Box 366, Avalon, CA 90704 (Attn: Silent Film).