Recording session for MODERN TIMES, November 1935

 At right, Chaplin shakes hands with conductor Alfred Newman. 

Eighty-years ago this month, Chaplin recorded the music for Modern Times, his final silent film. The sessions were held on a soundstage at the United Artists Studios, with a 65-piece orchestra conducted by Alfred Newman.1 Chaplin had composed the music himself, with the help of arrangers David Raksin and Edward Powell, including the “love theme” which would become one of his most famous melodies, better known as the pop standard “Smile.”2

Below is Hollywood reporter Sidney Skolsky’s eyewitness account of one of the recording sessions:

Chaplin sits in a camp chair on a large recording set at the United Artists studio, supervising the scoring. His hair is gray. He has a stubble gray beard. He wears black patent leather shoes with white suede tops, and his right arm is carried in a sling.3 A blue silk muffler serves as a sling. Chaplin broke his thumb in the door of his auto. 

Al Newman stands on a small platform, waving a baton at 65 musicians. David Raksin, who made the music arrangements for Chaplin, is also present to supervise. 

There is a screen hanging in midair in back of the orchestra. The part of Modern Times being scored will be shown on the screen. Chaplin is chewing gum in time with the orchestra. Only a few of Chaplin’s personal friends among the magazine writers and several visitors from the Soviet cinema have seen sections of the picture. No newspaperman has seen a flash of it. I walk on the set, stand and watch. Soon Chaplin sees me. He grins a broad “Hello” and then says it. I approach him. “I’d like to watch you work. May I?” Chaplin has always been congenial to me. “Stay around,” he answers, “but don’t tell too much.” 

The orchestra starts rehearsing the music for the factory sequence in which Chaplin revolts against being a slave of the machinery. He throws the place into confusion and does a wild dance. The music is as difficult as the scene. Every note must be timed exactly with the film, and the music is not loud and brazen as expected of factory sounds. The orchestra rehearses these few bars again…again…again. An hour later, they’re still doing these few bars. The orchestra stops playing. The men leave their chairs. There’s time out for five minutes, like a football team. It is strenuous work. The musicians work only three, four hours at the most, at a stretch. Then they have an hour for relaxation. Yesterday, they worked from 9 in the morning until 4 o’clock the next morning, and about half a reel was completely scored. It costs Chaplin on the average of $1,000 an hour to score this flicker. 

L-R: Charles Dunworth (asst. to Alfred Newman), Alfred Newman (conductor), CC, David Raksin (arranger),
 Paul Neal (recording engineer), and Edward Powell (arranger). 

Now, after several hours of rehearsing, Al Newman and Chaplin agree they will try to record this scene. The signal is given. The picture is ready to be flashed on the screen. The man in the sound booth is ready to pick up the music and capture  it. I am invited to sit in the sound booth with Paul Neal, for here I can see the picture and hear the music as it is recorded. He is the only man on the set who sees and hears the flicker as if it were being shown in a theater. Chaplin, with the baggy trousers, the big shoes and black hair, is on the screen. The Chaplin with neat clothes and gray hair sits looking at him. 

The flicker is on. Chaplin is performing. The first impression is very strange. I see Chaplin moving, his mouth opens–but no sounds, no words are heard. For a moment I believe something is wrong. Then I remember it is a silent flicker. The orchestra plays the same few bars again and again, and the picture is started over and over. By now I am becoming accustomed to silent pictures.4 Chaplin watches the picture and listens to the music. He jumps up to stop the music. He okays a take. He asks Newman or Raksin or Neal how it sounded. 

It is really interesting to watch Chaplin watch Chaplin. He never laughs at him, but is always intent. Chaplin when talking about the Chaplin on the screen says, “The little feller does that…” or “He doesn’t do that…” But he never calls the Chaplin on the screen “I.” To him the Chaplin on the screen is a character. 

–Sidney Skolsky, “Chaplin’s Modern Times,” Washington Post, November 27, 1935

Chaplin is seated at right near the conductor’s podium.

Photos by Max Munn Autrey

1Alfred Newman would eventually walk out on the film after a blow up with Chaplin. According to David Raksin: “They were operating on ragged nerves, and after one bad take Charlie had accused the players of “dogging it”–lying down on the job. At this, Newman, who at the best of times had a hair-trigger temper, had broken his baton and stalked off the stage, and was now refusing to work with Chaplin.” (“Life with Charlie,” 1983) Newman never returned. Arranger Edward Powell took over as conductor for the remainder of the sessions.
2Lyrics were added to the melody in 1954 by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons.
3You can see the sling on Chaplin in the last photo if you look closely. He is also wearing it in this photo taken at a party for H.G. Wells around the same time.
4By 1935, talkies had been around for nearly a decade and silent films were a thing of the past.


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