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Accompanied by a chorus of sniffling

What goes best with 'City Lights' at UCLA? A really good cry. Even the man conducting the score Saturday may shed a tear or two.

May 30, 2003|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

A box of tissues should be required equipment for those attending the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's 14th annual Silent Film Gala on Saturday evening at UCLA's Royce Hall. This year the gala will be showing a new print of Charlie Chaplin's 1931 masterwork, "City Lights" -- one of cinema's all-time weepers.

With Chaplin one of the best-loved and funniest screen comedians of the 20th century, it may be odd to think of a film of his causing audiences to cry uncontrollably. But that's the case with "City Lights," the hilarious but also poignant love story that finds the Little Tramp falling in love with a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) and going to great and comedic lengths to get the money to pay for an operation to restore her sight.

It's the Little Tramp's unrequited love for the blind girl that tears at your heartstrings. And the finale -- which finds the woman, now with her eyesight restored, realizing that this shabby, homeless man with the funny mustache was her benefactor -- has to be one of the most hauntingly beautiful scenes put on film.

Timothy Brock, who will be conducting LACO's live performance of Chaplin's enchanting score, is so moved by the finale that he can't look very closely at the screen while he's conducting "because I just start bawling. It's not the music by itself, and it's not the film by itself. It's the combination of the two. I watch the players as I normally do throughout the whole film, but the last part of the film has to be done from memory for me because it's just too heartbreaking. I am looking peripherally [at the screen]. But I am looking mostly at the musicians because I have the score memorized. I listen behind me as well because usually there is a lot of sniffing."

"I cry every time," adds Chaplin's daughter, actress Josephine Chaplin. His son, actor Sydney Chaplin, says: "It is a picture I have seen over 30 times. It is my favorite picture. It's so touching and it's absolutely marvelous. The end of the picture is a massacre!"

Even the gala's honorary chairman, Oscar-winning actor Dustin Hoffman, is a basket case when he watches the movie. "How can I put this into words? I not only cry at the end, but I cry at the first scene between [Chaplin and Cherrill]. The ending is one of the great emotional moments in the history of movies. His invention and his humanity coexist in a way more than any other film he's made or anyone else has made.

"I think this character represents something in all of us to an emotional degree that I don't know if any other screen character does. Certainly at the time [of the film's production], the Little Tramp was the most famous character in the world. He's a perpetual outsider, and his humor comes from how inappropriately he behaves, which is true of all of us. We are all perpetual outsiders somewhere deep in us; otherwise we wouldn't search for community as hard as we do."

Sydney Chaplin recalls that his father would screen his films for his children at their home in Switzerland. "Of course, I adored it when he showed 'City Lights.' He dealt with emotions and people's feelings, which are never dated."

Chaplin as composer

"City Lights" marked the first time Chaplin composed a score for one of his features. According to Brock, it was the filmmaker's favorite. "It is so Charlie, it wouldn't have been written by anybody else," says Brock. "It is his voice, and so it does have the pathos as well as the comedy. Charlie was not so much into writing music that was funny. He wanted it to be a counterpoint of grace and charm, which is how he put it."

"He was not a great musician," recalls Sydney Chaplin. "He played a lousy piano, but he had a marvelous feeling for music." Chaplin composed the score to "City Lights" in early 1931, says Brock. Up until that point, "he had written many songs, but this was his first fully orchestrated score." Because he couldn't read or write music, Chaplin worked with a "musical associate." For "Modern Times" it was composer David Raksin. In the case of "The Great Dictator" it was composer Meredith Willson. For "City Lights," Arthur Johnston occupied that position. Johnston, says Brock, "would sit down there at the piano with him and write down what his fingers were playing."

Chaplin was also highly involved in the orchestrations. "He was as much an orchestrator as a composer," says Brock. "He wanted to make sure certain colors were present. He would say, 'I want flutes here, there should be strings here' and so forth."

For the performance Saturday evening, Brock is returning to Chaplin's original concept for his score. " 'City Lights' is written for about 30 players," he says. "It was restored [before] in a symphonic manner. But that gives you a completely different idea of the film when it's played that way. I have seen it done with 80 players, the Chicago Symphony, and it's just not the score.

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