There was more to Charlie Chaplin than the laughs

Philippe Quint will join music director-conductor Sloane at the Jerusalem Theater on Thursday (8 p.m.) for the Smile concert.

 VIOLINIST PHILIPPE QUINT plays the music from Charlie Chaplin's soundtracks. (photo credit: JOHN GRESS)
VIOLINIST PHILIPPE QUINT plays the music from Charlie Chaplin's soundtracks.
(photo credit: JOHN GRESS)

Charlie Chaplin was known for his peerless moves. The man could make his audience laugh or cry, or possibly both at the same time, by just a drop of his shoulder, or a nifty swivel of his ubiquitous cane. However, now it appears that his emotive powers were not limited to his onscreen maneuvers, thanks to Philippe Quint, with a little help from Steven Sloane and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra (JSO).

The Soviet-born Jewish-American violinist will join music director-conductor Sloane at the Jerusalem Theater on Thursday (8 p.m.) for the Smile concert. The name of the show comes from the title of one of the best-known Hollywood movie charts, first performed as part of the soundtrack of Chaplin’s highly popular 1936 silent movie Modern Times.

Smile isn’t just one of the most captivating, hummable numbers ever to come out of Tinsel Town, it was actually written by Chaplin himself. OK, so “written” might not technically be correct, as Chaplin could neither read nor write music, but he sure could bang out a tune or two.

Over the past few years, Quint has become something of an expert on Chaplin’s oeuvre and life. “It was a bit of a discovery for me, personally, but as I learned later along with a lot of people, in addition to being a brilliant comedian, Chaplin was quite a prolific composer,” he notes.

How come or, more to the point, how come we didn’t know that? “I think it was just under the radar,” says Quint. “It was always there.” The violinist feels that it may have been part of a premeditated smoke screen. “It was also something, he didn’t quite advertise himself. He was concentrating his career around his directing and acting. This [music] was something he was doing amateurishly but with great love.”

 Charlie Chaplin (credit: FLICKR) Charlie Chaplin (credit: FLICKR)

Chaplin's musical career

CHAPLIN MAY not have been a trained musician, but he was responsible for producing some of the most memorable sonic material ever to come out of Hollywood. Indeed, had we been a little more focused on the opening credits of the 1931 romantic comedy City Lights, we would have seen “Music composed by Charlie Chaplin” down to the left of the second credits frame. And there are more Chaplin songs in the heart-wrenching 1921 comedy-drama The Kid, and in his iconic reference to the dangers of Nazism in The Great Dictator, which came out in 1940.

Once Quint encountered Chaplin’s music, he was eager not only to delve into it and see what else was in there, he set out to share it with the world. “This [Smile] project certainly sparked a lot of interest in Chaplin the composer, and we are seeing a sort of rediscovery of that side of Chaplin.”

The internationally acclaimed violinist also got an eye opener of his own, in terms of how one can go about achieving a high level of musicianship. “As someone who has spent his life in classical music as a trained musician, going to study theory, composition, music, score and structure, I was always under the assumption that they are the most important tools for becoming a musician.”

The diminutive comedian with the instantly recognizable walk, hat and moustache set Quint right in that regard. “Chaplin is living proof that it is not so,” he laughs. “You just need to have an idea, and you need, I guess, the will, a little bit of luck and the opportunity, and you can be called a composer, and a successful one.”

In fact, Chaplin not only had an intense love of music, he had an invaluable natural gift that forms part of the nuts and bolts of the musical world, and all performing arts disciplines: timing. “I think it had to do with tremendous instinct,” Quint suggests. “That is probably what sets him apart from all the other incredible comedians of that time. He just had a greater instinct of what needs to be done.”

It wasn’t just about divinely bestowed talent. “Chaplin also had an incredible work ethic,” says Quint. “There are stories of him being an absolute perfectionist and a tyrant on the set, and doing hundreds and hundreds of takes, until the scene was perfected.”

I posited that it sounded more than a little like the spirit of the rehearsals stage prior to a classical music concert. Quint confirmed the common ground between Chaplin’s thespian work and his efforts to ensure the soundtrack to a particular movie was just as pristine and polished. “I know that he would actually get into arguments with a team of professional composers and arrangers, saying that, by looking at the music score, at the music page, ‘this part here, there are too many notes.’ And they would say, ‘what are you talking about?’, and he would say, ‘this part here has too many notes. It needs to be simpler. The oboe is playing too many notes.’”

THAT IS nothing short of astounding. Then again, given Chaplin’s famed professionalism and determination, he wasn’t about to kowtow to professional musicians, just because they had training, technical skills and experience he didn’t have. “They would have an argument but, of course, in the end Chaplin would prevail and, in the end, he was always correct, and that needed to be done.”

The comic may not have got himself a degree in composition at some prestigious institution, but anyone who worked with him was fully cognizant of the man’s gifts and they were not about to cross swords with him too strenuously. Be that as it may, I wondered whether some of the composers and arrangers may have privately balked at what they really thought was Chaplin’s hubris. “They may have thought that,” Quint observes, “but they also knew they were dealing with an absolute genius, and they probably trusted and listened carefully to what he had to say.”

The proof of that amateurish pudding has been out there for all to see and hear for over a century. And now, Quint, Sloane and the JSO are bringing some of that compelling magic to the stage in Jerusalem. Quint and Sloane had a run out with the material last year, just prior to the conductor leaving his post as general music director of the Bochum Symphony Orchestra in Germany.

In addition to the Chaplin scores, Quint and the JSO will play various works by composers who impacted on Chaplin’s musical consciousness, including Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” which informed the score for 1952 Chaplin comedy-drama Limelight, Stravinsky’s “Tango” and “I Got Rhythm” by George Gershwin. Quint will also illuminate the Jerusalem Theater audience between numbers with informative and entertaining spoken slots, and there will be footage from relevant pieces of Chaplin celluloid screened behind the orchestra.

It is a fair bet that, after hearing Quint and the JSO perform some of Chaplin’s charts, we will appreciate his cinematic work with different eyes and ears. “There is no question about it,” Quint concurs. “The program certainly triggers a lot of people to rewatch those films. Some occasionally have a memory of a melody they’ve heard for years, not realizing it was written by Chaplin, and it meant so much to them.”

Presumably, now it will mean even more. Smile!

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