Spoleto 2015 » Film & Literature

In Charlie Chaplin's City Lights, timing is everything

Bright Lights, Big City

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Timing. Such is the key to comedy. Without it, punchlines become awkward and predictable. Understandably, timing plays a crucial role in the silent films of Charlie Chaplin, who obviously could not rely on spoken jokes. Instead, it was his keen understanding of comedic timing that helped him enthrall audiences, as he did most notably with his 1931 film City Lights.

Someone who is painfully familiar with the intricacies of Chaplin's timing is William Eddins, a pianist and conductor currently serving as the musical director for the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra in Alberta, Canada. Eddins has performed or conducted with the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the San Francisco Orchestra, among many others; he's also conducted Porgy and Bess with France's Opera de Lyon, and Italy's RAI Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale for broadcast on Italian television. Now he's coming to Charleston to direct the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra as it performs the City Lights score live on stage, accompanying Chaplin's film.

"I've forgotten more about this film than you'll ever know," says Eddins. In order to conduct live music precisely aligned with the film, Eddins has had to study Chaplin's timing for hours. "Some scenes I've watched a couple hundred times to figure out timing." Yet Eddins still relishes the chance to do it. "I'm always excited to conduct City Lights," he says. "Always."

Using his typical brand of humor, Chaplin revisits his Tramp character in City Lights. In the film, the Tramp falls in love with a blind girl who sells flowers on the street. After stopping a wealthy man — the Millionaire — from ending his own life, the Tramp is able to use the Millionaire's resources to help the blind girl, finally allowing her to receive treatment to be able to see. Throughout the film, the Tramp's antics — from dancing his way through a boxing match to being thrown into a river— create cascading effects, with hilarity often ensuing.

In order to help tell this story comically, Chaplin utilized a nuanced film score to complement the action on screen. "City Lights is landmark in that it gives a model for how music goes with visuals," says Eddins. "Chaplin was the first person to amalgamate all the different parts of a film. His movies defined what a movie score should be." Though Chaplin is not often remembered as a composer — or a violin player, which he also was — he did write most of the music to City Lights and his many other films.

When it comes to performing the film score along with the live projection of the movie, Eddins knows it will be quite the challenge to nail it perfectly. "Chaplin was an utter perfectionist," he says, emphasizing how integral a perfectly timed score is to the film. "The music is there to enhance what you see."

Eddins points to an early scene in which the Tramp interacts with a window display and in doing so, precariously avoids plummeting down into a sidewalk underground shaft. The music closely interplays with Chaplin's actions, heightening the audience's anticipation of impending danger that is continually staved off. "It's a 42-second clinic in timing," Eddins asserts, noting that it is one of the toughest scenes of the film to approach with a live orchestra. Though remastered versions of City Lights contain more recent performances of Chaplin's score, the production quality of the music can still sound dated. "There is a sonic richness to [live] music that you can't fake," Eddins says. Though the work involved in such a production is challenging, Eddins is certainly capable of tackling it. "When it's done right, it's phenomenal," he says.

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