The San Francisco Symphony is taking a lighter turn for the Thanksgiving holiday, presenting guest conductor David Robertson leading the orchestra in a performance of Charlie Chaplin’s score to his 1931 film City Lights.
Robertson has a reputation for eclecticism, bringing a diverse range of interests to his position as conductor of the St. Louis Symphony. His talent and varied interests have been credited for the revitalization of the orchestra after a troubled few years that featured a brush with bankruptcy and dissolution, the untimely death of conductor Hans Von and a labor dispute that resulted in a work stoppage in 2005.
Robertson, a relatively young conductor at the age 47, is proving to be something of a hot commodity, a much sought-after guest conductor who has brought his expansive repertoire—from the great international masters to the lowly slapstick comedians of early Hollywood—to a series of concerts around the country.
Charlie Chaplin is not often thought of as a music man, but Robertson has long been a champion of the comedian’s musical talents, conducting the St. Louis Symphony in presentations of several of Chaplin’s scores, including The Idle Class, City Lights and The Kid. As in the case of the San Francisco concerts, the scores are usually performed as accompaniment to the films themselves. In St. Louis, they’ve even sold popcorn in the lobby.
Chaplin’s City Lights is perhaps his best feature film, with one of the most moving and poignant closing shots ever filmed. But what gets lost in the haze of hagiography is that City Lights was a daring and controversial project. The movies had begun to talk, quickly banishing the silent filmmakers to the ash heap of cultural irrelevance. Many filmmakers made the shift to sound willingly, eager to explore the possibilities of what was essentially a new art form. Others, like Chaplin, went begrudgingly.
But his was a unique case. As an independent producer, he had no studio bosses to force the change upon him. And as one of the most successful and beloved of screen icons, he had the clout and the means to stand his ground and produce whatever sort of picture he wanted. So he opted to remain silent.
This was not simply a case of stubbornness however, nor of vanity, though Chaplin possessed no shortage of either. Rather, this was a case of retaining the integrity of the character he had nurtured for more than 15 years, the beloved Tramp who had made him famous the world over. For the Tramp was an inherently silent character, and one that had international appeal; to give him a voice—and, perhaps most damaging, a particular language—would limit his archetypal quality.
“A good silent picture had universal appeal both to the intellectual and the rank and file,” Chaplin wrote in his autobiography. “Now it was all to be lost.”
So Chaplin set out to prove that silence was an art form rather than an outdated commodity, and he succeeded beyond all expectations. But still there is more to the story, more to the range and depth of Chaplin’s accomplishment. The advent of sound meant that for the first time Chaplin could have absolute control over the scoring of his film. In the silent era, films were often sent to theaters along with complete scores, or at least cue sheets so that each theater’s house musicians could accompany the film with appropriate music. Chaplin had always been involved in compiling these cue sheets, but the nature of the operation limited his influence. The new technology allowed Chaplin to compose his own score and oversee its recording, thus filling the only remaining gap in his auteurist resume.
The music, however, may not be quite what you’d expect from silent comedy. It has none of the clichéd bumps and whistles that pedestrian musicians so often use to accompany visual comedy. Again from Chaplin’s autobiography:
I 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 grace and charm, to express sentiment, without which, as Hazlitt says, a work of art is incomplete.
Chaplin scored all of his future films as well, and even went back and composed and recorded scores for many of his earlier films. And, as per his estate, the films must be screened with those scores. Thus modern audiences who wish to see Chaplin on the big screen are often cheated of one of the essential pleasures of silent film: live musical accompaniment.
David Robertson and the San Francisco Symphony however are correcting that flaw and providing just such an opportunity.
Guest conductor David Robertson will lead the San Francisco Symphony in a performance of Charlie Chaplin’s score for his 1931 classic City Lights at 8 p.m. Nov. 22, 24 and 25. The performance will accompany a screening of the film. The concert will be preceded by an onstage conversation between Robertson and San Francisco Silent Film Festival Artistic Director Stephen Salmons at 7 p.m. Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave.,
San Francisco. (415) 864-6000.