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Charlie Chaplin’s funniest film to be accompanied by orchestra

by Rick Schultz

June 4, 2014 | 10:56 am

“Modern Times,” starring Charlie Chaplin. Photo © United Artists, 1936

“Modern Times,” starring Charlie Chaplin. Photo © United Artists, 1936

Imagine being 23 years old and summoned to Hollywood by Charlie Chaplin to work on his 1936 comedy classic, “Modern Times” — then being fired by the legendary star/director/writer after a week and a half. And then rehired. 

That’s what happened to the great American film composer David Raksin when he was asked to help Chaplin score the film.

In celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s (LACO) annual silent film event, the ensemble is reprising a showing of “Modern Times” on June 8 at 6:30 p.m. at UCLA’s Royce Hall. It features a print LACO first screened in 2000, prepared and restored by Chace Productions, a company known for pioneering technology used in sound preservation and restoration.

Though Chaplin’s first talking picture was 1940’s “The Great Dictator,” “Modern Times,” like “City Lights” (1931) used a soundtrack. And while LACO wanted to perform the orchestral score live for the film, it also wanted to preserve the original Chaplin soundtrack.

“Though ‘Modern Times’ is mostly silent, there is some dialogue, sound effects and Chaplin and Raksin’s wonderful score,” Bob Heiber, who is president of Chace Productions, said by phone from his home in Calabasas. “The trick was to carve around the score, without throwing the baby out with the bath water.”

Heiber explained that months were spent editing out the musical portions of the film, while retaining the dialogue and sound effects. “Today’s films use separate dialogue, music and sound effects ‘stems,’ which are mixed separately,” Heiber said. “These don’t exist for early pictures.” 

Timothy Brock conducts the Chaplin-Raksin “Modern Times” score, which he reconstructed, and he also leads the LACO musicians in their live accompaniment to Chaplin’s 1914 short film, “Kid Auto Races at Venice, California.” The latter film introduced Chaplin’s Little Tramp character, who evolved over the next 22 years into the iconic figure whose ill-fitting clothes, signature bowler hat and cane, and shuffling walk became instantly recognizable around the world. “Modern Times” was the character’s final screen appearance.

“Comedy didn’t start with Bart Simpson,” Heiber said. “Chaplin, [Buster] Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy — they invented most of the jokes. Every cartoon gag today can be found in Chaplin.” 

Heiber said that LACO’s annual silent film galas do more than just help support the orchestra. They also offer an accessible, fun way to bring audiences to an orchestral concert. 

“Seeing a world-class ensemble accompanying a movie is like being at a live recording session,” he said. 

While Brock composed new music for “Kid Auto Races at Venice,” he had to reconstruct the “Modern Times” score for live performance. “Tim [Brock] contacted Raksin, who still had some of the orchestral parts, but detective work was needed,” Heiber said. “Pieces were missing.”

Since 2000, Brock has presented the live orchestra-friendly print of “Modern Times” — which ranked No. 33 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Funniest Movies of All Time — around the world. But what would things have been like without Raksin’s contribution? Chaplin couldn’t notate, arrange or orchestrate his musical ideas, so Raksin took tunes Chaplin hummed, and shaped and made musical sense of them. 

Raksin, who died in Los Angeles at age 92 in 2004, would subsequently become famous himself for scoring films such as “Laura,” “Force of Evil” and “The Bad and the Beautiful.” But in August 1935, he was just a kid trying to get his foot in the door.

“Like many self-made autocrats,” Raksin wrote in his memoir “The Bad and the Beautiful: My Life in a Golden Age of Film Music,” “Chaplin demanded unquestioning obedience from his associates ... [but] I believed he would recognize the value of an independent mind.”

Remarkably, Chaplin did. But only after Alfred Newman, who later became music director of 20th Century Fox Studios and who loved what the young composer was doing with Chaplin’s “little tunes,” convinced the perfectionist star and director that he needed Raksin. 

Their musical collaboration on “Modern Times” lasted nearly five months, with Raksin observing that Chaplin was strongly influenced by his years working in English music halls. “He had accumulated a veritable attic full of memories and fragments of ideas in all categories,” Raksin wrote, “which he converted to his own purposes with great style and individuality.”

According to Raksin’s son, Alex, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, his father’s chutzpah in standing up to Chaplin was “partly a public face.”

“As a boy at home, my father had less confidence because his Jewish mother — my grandmother —wouldn’t let him forget musical gaffes that his father pretended not to notice,” the son said. “Without getting mired in complex gender dynamics, I think it’s safe to say that my dad felt more comfortable challenging male authority figures.”

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s 25th Annual Silent Film event takes place at Royce Hall at UCLA on June 8 at 6:30 pm. For tickets, call (213) 622-7001 x1 or visit laco.org/events/221.

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