Chaplin’s Modern Times

Carl Davis
Music for “The Rink”
Music for “Modern Times”

Film screenings with live orchestral accompaniment

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Carl Davis

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 10 April, 2006
Venue: Sadler's Wells Theatre, London

Even while displaced from their home, the Royal Festival Hall being refurbished, the London Philharmonic has, thankfully, been able to continue a strand that has developed over the last few seasons, that of inviting Carl Davis to conduct his music for silent-movie classics as an accompaniment to screenings. While a natural peak was reached a year past December with Abel Gance’s extraordinary and epic “Napoleon”, here – more modestly and transferred to Sadler’s Wells, with the orchestra partially obscured in the pit – this year brought together two Charlie Chaplin films made 20 years apart.

“The Rink” was filmed in 1916, one of twelve he made for the Mutual company (having been at Keystone and Essanay making two-reelers and before moving on first to First National and then to found United Artists), whereas “Modern Times” saw for the last time his trademark ‘little tramp’ complete with turned-outward feet and bowler hat and cane. Made in 1936 it used sound, but only in a limited way for voices, while Chaplin himself not only produced, directed and starred in the film, but also wrote the score.

Here Timothy Brock had done the painstaking work of producing parts and full score for such ‘live’ performances as this, while Carl Davis had done his own score for “The Rink” (available on DVD from the British Film Institute as part of all the Mutual films, packaged in two, separately available discs).

Just as Chaplin used popular tunes of the day, so Davis is a past master at a witty pastiche. In “The Rink” we get Latin strains when, as a waiter, Chaplin’s tramp has to rustle up a cocktail, or a returning waltz to accompany the shenanigans at the roller-skating parlour. The musical effects to the running gags were all timed to perfection and it is amazing to think how well the slapstick works 90 years after Chaplin’s inspiration.

It was also interesting to see how Chaplin’s style hadn’t changed in the intervening 20 years before “Modern Times”. In this later film we have an almost identical waiter scene and another with yet more roller-skates! But Chaplin’s ambitions had come on leaps and bounds. As well as using the new sound technology to record the score (though Timothy Brock reiterated in his programme note that the original recording misses most of the nuances of Chaplin’s expert orchestration), Chaplin also was making a serious point amidst the hilarity.

“Modern Times” is as much a comment on the horrors of the Depression, such as the opening shot of sheep fading into humans rushing to work and the extended first scene of people working relentlessly for bosses who do nothing but watch to make sure no one is slacking. Later, Chaplin is mistakenly taken as the leader of a march against unemployment and thrown into gaol for his trouble and (once out) just manages to be the last man to be taken-on again back at the factory. All this points to this seriousness of social comment. Even the heroine – Gamine as she is called, played by Paulette Goddard – is left without a father because he has been killed in one of the riots.

There is also hilarity: the boring routine of ‘the worker’ thrown into chaos and continually affecting all those around him or the automated feeding machine the boss tries out at the factory (with Chaplin the unwilling guinea pig), which – had it worked (and you can imagine how wrong it goes) – could have kept the workforce working through lunch. This is Chaplin just as much casting a wary eye to the future as Korda had done in “Things to Come” (H.G. Wells), made the previous year, given the opening and rather frightening views of industrial progress.

Yet the growing relationship between ‘the worker’ and Gamine is poignant as well as funny: the night they spend in the department store where he has got a job as night watchman, where they skate across the toy department before she gets to sleep on one of the beds, for example. Yet even here Chaplin makes a serious point: Chaplin finds the store has been broken into – but he is recognised by the thieves as a one-time fellow worker and he lets them eat and drink because they are not only unemployed and, above all, famished.

Apart from the broadcast voice of the boss in the factory, the only other time Chaplin used non-musical sound on the soundtrack was for the stomach-rumbling scene between him and the chaplain’s wife at the prison and when, in the restaurant, where Gamine is now an entertainer, he too has to sing. He can’t remember the words and, even though she has written them on his cuffs, he has lost those by flinging open his arms and his cuffs fly off. So has to make the words up, a form of mock Italian that, connected with his daft dance wins him a reprieve.

This was about the only time the London Philharmonic got a break. Other than that they were going all the time with Chaplin’s varied palette. There were touches of Mossolov’s Iron Foundry, or Hindemith’s rather functional music, in the baying brass to signify the factories, whereas much of the comedy is accompanied by the wit and fizz of such contemporary composers as the French group known as ‘Les Six’. Scintillating is the word that most comes to mind and, true to form, Davis and his players gave it all a scintillating performance.

It is rare in a theatre or concert hall to find yourself laughing so much; I can’t think of any better way of spending a Monday evening (or any evening for that matter). Thankfully I won’t have to wait too long to do it all again, as the LPO is celebrating Carl Davis’s 70th-birthday in their upcoming Queen Elizabeth Hall performance accompanying another Chaplin short, “The Fireman”, and Buster Keaton’s “Our Hospitality”. 29 October 2006: I urge you not to miss it!

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