Silence Is Golden

Silence Is Golden

Chaplin’s classic ‘City Lights’ brings orchestra centerstage


John Jeter loves old movies — truly old movies, like those made in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. In fact, he calls the days of the Humphrey Bogart/Spencer Tracy films the golden age of movie making.

“I love the dialogue — it’s so gritty,” says Jeter. “And the actors! So many of those actors were school-of-hard-knocks people who grew up in adverse circumstances and made it in Hollywood. There was more depth in their characters, even if the acting wasn’t as realistic.”

But that’s not why the Fort Smith Symphony is playing along to Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 silent classic “City Lights.” Rather, Jeter says, it’s because the music is “superb.”

The late film critic Roger Ebert wrote in 1997 that “if only one of Charles Chaplin’s films could be preserved, ‘City Lights’ would come the closest to representing all the different notes of his genius. It contains the slapstick, the pathos, the pantomime, the effortless physical coordination, the melodrama, the bawdiness, the grace, and, of course, the Little Tramp — the character said, at one time, to be the most famous image on earth.”

What modern-day audiences might not know — and one of the reasons Jeter loves the film score — is that Chaplin wrote the music — more or less.

“Chaplin was an amateur musician, and he would come up with thematic ideas — a beautiful section for strings, for example — that he might peck out on the piano or sing to his cadre of composers and arrangers, who would then write it down,” Jeter explains. “So it’s Chaplin’s musical ideas. They would show a scene, and he would sing or play the melody, and they would compose something and get together with him again, and they’d play it on piano or string trio. He’d make some changes. And eventually they’d orchestrate it.”

The filmmaker was a perfectionist, Jeter notes, and there are scenes in “City Lights” that required as many as 300 takes. It’s a reflection of just how big Chaplin was in Hollywood.

“He was famous the way few of our stars are today,” he explains. “In Hollywood, you had Chaplin. In sports, you had Babe Ruth.”

But, he adds, the film is still “very engaging, funny, fun, tender — it’s got all the ingredients.”

What it doesn’t have is dialogue. “City Lights” is black and white and one of the last of the successful silent films.

“When he made it, three years into the era of sound, Chaplin must have known that ‘City Lights’ might be his last silent film; he considered making a talkie, but decided against it,” writes Roger Ebert, “and although the film has a full musical score and sound effects, it has no speech.”

Jeter prefers a silent film to screen with a live score over modern films like the Harry Potter series, which are very popular right now.

“Audiences obviously really like it, and it’s great for attendance,” he says of that kind of program. “We’ve done a ton of film music over the years, but I’m concerned when people go to a movie with dialogue and sound effects, the orchestra [playing the score] does take a back seat. With a piece like we’re doing, we’re a more integral part — there’s not a lot of distraction. So not only is it fun, but it’s very artistically viable.”

Jeter has in fact decided to include another film screening in next year’s season — an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

“It features a film composer we have yet to feature, so we’re doing it,” he says enthusiastically. “There’s a lot of great film music out there.”



Fort Smith Symphony:

‘It’s Time For Chaplin’

WHEN — 7:30 p.m. Jan. 19

WHERE — ArcBest Performing Arts Center in Fort Smith

COST — $20-$50

INFO — 452-7575 or



Fort Smith Symphony:

The Rest Of The Season

April 13 — “It’s Time For Piano” with Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 by Franz Liszt; “Barcarolle” by Jacques Offenbach; March Slav by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky; and songs by Irving Berlin, Billy Joel, Elton John, John Lennon, Ray Charles and more with Tony DeSare, vocals/piano, and his jazz ensemble.

May 11 — “It’s Time For Pictures” with “WubWubWub” by Patrick Conlon, a world premiere with Patrick Conlon, violin, and Christina Giacona, clarinet; Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 featuring Irish pianist Michael McHale; and Mussorgsky/Ravel’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

Categories: Music