Charlie Chaplin is known best as the pre-eminent comic of the silent era in American motion pictures, and he may be the most important single individual in the entire history of film. Weaned in the lowly English music hall, Chaplin entered films in 1914 as a bit player for the Keystone company and swiftly built a career that sustained him for the ensuing six decades, experiencing popularity and stardom on a level that is likely never to be seen again for any actor. In the closing years of the twentieth century, Chaplin's reputation was challenged to some degree by the highly artistic, and considerably less sentimental, output of his contemporary Buster Keaton, which in the long run has proven more appealing to critics than Chaplin's mixture of comedy and pathos. Although Keaton sang and played the guitar a little in his early talkies, he never attempted to set the scene in any of his admittedly otherwise micro-managed subjects through utilizing his own musical score. Chaplin did, so for all of his output from A Dog's Life (1918) forward, and while much of his work in this vein was done retroactively, Chaplin is among a small handful of filmmakers to write the music for the majority of their own most significant pictures.
Chaplin was an ardent musical enthusiast and a decent amateur cellist; his earliest known musical composition is Oh! That Cello, a pop tune that was one of three published by the Charlie Chaplin Music Company, which both opened, and closed, its doors in 1916. Although he contributed three themes for use in The Kid (1921), Chaplin first compiled a reasonably complete score for his film A Woman of Paris (1923), an unsuccessful serious drama starring Edna Purviance. Faced with the technological development of talking pictures marginalizing his essentially silent form of comic art around 1930, Chaplin responded with City Lights (1931), a picture with a musical score and sound effects, but no dialogue. His use in City Lights of a squawking, unintelligible, and electronically altered "voice" in place of a pretentious speech given by a dignitary was an innovation that demonstrated that spoken dialogue was not absolutely necessary in filmed comedy. With Modern Times (1936), Chaplin contributed his best score and the hit song "Smile," which has since become a standard. Afterward, Chaplin made all of his new films with dialogue, but starting with a 1942 reissue of The Gold Rush, began to add musical scores and effects to the older, silent films that he still legally owned. As Chaplin's physicians barred him from making new films after reaching the age of 80 in 1969, this activity became a major creative pre-occupation for Chaplin in his last years. Although made in 1952, the film Limelight wasn't released in the United States until 1972 owing to Chaplin's troubles with the House of Un-American Activities Committee, and upon its delayed release Limelight's musical score earned Chaplin his only non-honorary Oscar win.
Chaplin worked with a transcriber and orchestrator, first demonstrating thematic material on the piano and later commenting on the orchestration and harmony after the basic scoring work was finished. He seldom related his music to onscreen action, and deliberately made sound effects a little out of sync, so that viewers did not lose sight of the fact that they were watching a silent movie. Chaplin's stated purpose in scoring his own films was to provide a dignified frame for the Little Tramp to play out his adventures within. Admittedly, Chaplin's scores do not always work -- the wanna-be-Go-Go-music Chaplin added in the 1960s to his film The Idle Class (1922) actually intrudes on the film due to its anachronism and lack of sympathy with the action onscreen. But as "Smile" and certain movie cues such as Perdue from the score to A Countess From Hong Kong (1967) make clear, Chaplin did have a talent for conveying sentimental emotion akin to what was depicted in his films. As some of Chaplin's musical ideas are memorable, and couched in the milieu of the English Music Hall music that he loved and knew best, they have taken on a life of their own outside the cinema, a distinction likely well beyond what Chaplin could have hoped for concerning his music.