The critical reputation of Charlie Chaplin has dimmed slightly in recent years, thrown into shadow by the spotlight trained on his silent-comedian contemporary Buster Keaton, whose blank-faced stoicism and inventive use of the medium perhaps appeal more to our modern sensibility than Chaplin's unabashed sentimentality and deliberately basic, performance-centered filmic approach.
Chaplin deserves a kinder fate: His best works -- the brilliant Mutual and First National shorts and silent features -- remain luminous and wildly funny, but, as with all pre-sound movies, their once-familiar tropes seem increasingly alien and dated, and the films are therefore seldom exhibited. This weekend, happily, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra offers an all-too-rare opportunity to see why Chaplin was once the world's most beloved film star when they screen City Lights with live accompaniment.
Regarded by most as Chaplin's masterpiece, City Lights follows two essentially separate story strands that Chaplin's Tramp knits loosely together. In the first, the film's romance, the Tramp becomes smitten with a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) who mistakenly believes him to be a wealthy swell; in the second, the source of its abundant comedy, Charlie rescues from suicide an actual millionaire (Harry Myers), who lavishly befriends the Tramp when drunk but fails to remember him when sober. Although filled with classic gag sequences, City Lights is best remembered for its devastatingly affecting final shot: a closeup of Chaplin that simultaneously communicates embarrassment and delight, acceptance and longing, overwhelming joy and hopeless despair. Critic James Agee wrote of the ending, "It is enough to shrivel the heart to see, and it is the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies."
Marin Alsop, who guest-conducts the performances of City Lights' score, would likely agree with Agee's assessment. "I'm kind of a Chaplin buff," she says, "and City Lights is my favorite movie of all time. The great thing about the film is that although I've watched it, obviously, many times because I had to memorize all the moves, every time I see it I see something new. It's so beautiful."
The music that Alsop and the symphony will perform is Chaplin's own -- he composed the scores for all his post-sound features, even adding soundtracks to such silent films as The Gold Rush and The Circus when they were later re-released. City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936), although technically silents, were both made in the sound era, and Chaplin readily embraced the synchronized musical soundtrack while resisting the addition of dialogue. (Chaplin was rightly concerned with diminishing the Tramp's universality by giving him a specific voice; he didn't make a true sound feature until he abandoned the character in 1940's The Great Dictator.)
The daunting scope of Chaplin's talents is what attracts Alsop to his work: "The reason that Chaplin is one of my heroes is not because he's such a great actor but because he was one of those consummate Renaissance people," she says. "I think he was one of the great figures of our century. He was a director, producer, writer, actor; in addition, he wrote all the music himself. He was not a trained musician -- he couldn't read music, `a la Paul McCartney -- so he would hire orchestrators and whatnot, but he would really dictate artistically what he wanted. He would sit with the orchestrator with the rough cut of the film and say, 'Here I'd like this tune -- la-la-la. I'd like the melody from the flower girl to come in here.' So he was really very, very specific as to what he wanted.
"What ends up happening is the score is more operatic than anything else. Each person has a leitmotif and something to identify them, and it's all interwoven in this absolutely beautiful score. I really love the score. It's a little bit dated, but it's so genuine in its beauty and simplicity. It's a really heart-on-the-sleeve kind of score, but it doesn't sound schlocky at all. It's very heartfelt and very sincere."
Alsop -- currently the music director of the Colorado Symphony, the Cabrillo Festival in California and the Concordia Orchestra in New York City -- frankly admits a love for movies and their music that extends beyond Chaplin. "I'm so much a product of the television generation that it's hard for me to escape the concept of the visual with the listening experience," she confesses.
"In general, it's nice to experiment with the medium, because it brings an awareness to the absolutely gorgeous film music that's been written and continues to be written by people like John Williams. There are a lot of great writers out there. It's funny, because they don't get the same kind of adulation and prestige as a serious art-music composer, but writing for film today, I think, is similar to writing for some kind of special church occasion a couple of hundred years ago."
Certainly the performances of City Lights qualify as a special occasion. Powell Symphony Hall, which began its life as a movie palace, will again be oufitted with a screen and 35mm film projector. "What I've requested is the screen be right above the orchestra," says Alsop, "so when you're watching the film, you'll see the orchestra there, too. My goal is to in some way re-create the experience someone might have had if they went to the movies in the early '20s in a big city, because they would have had an orchestra -- not this large, but a small orchestra -- that would have accompanied the silent films."
Alsop has conducted the City Lights score in Denver and New York, but she says performing it remains tricky. "It's really quite a challenge in the conducting sense," Alsop notes, "because if I look away too long I can miss one of these critical moves that I want to hit. And then, of course, the orchestra gets lost, and you're like, 'No, no, no, wait!' And that invariably happens because they're in the dark and there's a distraction or something."
Despite the occasional miscues, City Lights accompanied by a live orchestral performance proves uniquely moving: "It's a very emotional movie," says Alsop, "and a very emotional experience. I think it's a very special evening."
Conductor Marin Alsop and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra perform City Lights at 8 p.m. May 14 and at 3 p.m. May 15-16 at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 N. Grand Blvd. Tickets are $14-$49. Call 534-1700.
-- Cliff Froehlich