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The Music of The Gold Rush

Chaplin, a bear, and the Abe Lyman Orchestra during production of The Gold Rush
Chaplin, a bear, and the Abe Lyman Orchestra during production of The Gold Rush

Silent films were never truly silent: the live musical accompaniment provided in the theatres was a vital element of the cinema-going experience. The first-class urban cinemas maintained orchestras of as many as 60 or more musicians, with specially arranged scores; though inevitably as it moved into more modest, regional theatres, the film might only have the accompaniment of an improvising pianist, perhaps supported by a violinist or drummer.

A director of Chaplin’s sensitivity was acutely aware that good music could add immeasurably to the effect of a film – just as unsuitably music could detract. Music figured large in Chaplin’s life. As a very young man, touring the English music halls, he had bought a violin and a ‘cello, and took lessons from the musical directors of the theatres where he played. Throughout his life he improvised capably on the piano, though he never learned to read music. From his first sound film, City Lights, he composed the music for all his films, working in close and demanding collaboration with arrangers.

It is clear that even before this, from his first silent features, he took a keen interest in the musical arrangements of his films. For the premiere performance of The Gold Rush on 26 June 1925 it was accompanied by an orchestral score compiled by one of the most distinguished musical directors for silent films, the Rumanian-born Carli D.Elinor (1890-1958). Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre Orchestra was conducted by Gino Severi, with Julius J.Johnson at the mighty cinema organ. For the first run of the film in the same theatre, however, the film was supplied with a new score by Carl Minor, mostly compiled, like Elinor’s from existing compositions, both popular and classical.

Chaplin himself composed two songs, “Sing a Song” and “With You Dear in Bombay”, and even recorded them for the gramophone, with himself conducting Abe Lyman’s orchestra: copies of the disc were sold in cinemas where The Gold Rush was shown. For the British premiere run, a new score was compiled by Chaplin’s French assistant director, Henri d’Abbadie d’Arrast, who chose as Georgia’s theme an 1899 ballad. Chauncey Olcott’s “My Wild Irish Rose”.

When in 1942 he decided to reissue The Gold Rush, adapting it for a new audience accustomed to sound films, Chaplin composed and recorded an entirely new score, working with a well-known popular musician, Max Terr, as musical director. Terr was nominated in the 1943 Oscars for The Gold Rush score, in the class of Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture.

Text by David Robinson / Copyright 2004 MK2 SA

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