Geneva Anderson digs into art

San Francisco Symphony’s Film Series—Charlie Chaplin in “City Lights” with live music at Davies Symphony Hall this Saturday, April 12, 2014

Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp buys a flower from the blind flower girl, played by Virginia Cherrill, in the silent film classic, “City Lights,” which will be shown Saturday, April 12, 2014 at Davies Symphony Hall.  Guest conductor Richard Kaufman, who has devoted much of his career to the music of film, will conduct the San Francisco Symphony in live accompaniment.

Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp buys a flower from the blind flower girl, played by Virginia Cherrill, in the silent film classic, “City Lights,” which will be shown Saturday, April 12, 2014 at Davies Symphony Hall. Guest conductor Richard Kaufman, who has devoted much of his career to the music of film, will conduct the San Francisco Symphony in live accompaniment.

Slapstick, pathos, pantomime, melodrama, physical prowess, and, of course, the Little Tramp—all of these led renowned film critic Robert Ebert to proclaim that Charley Chaplin’s masterpiece of the Silent Era, City Lights, “comes closest to representing all the different notes of his genius.”  Written by, directed by, and starring Chaplin, the enchanting romantic comedy from 1931 features Chaplin in his greatest role ever, the Little Tramp.  A fellow to whom who everyman could relate, the Tramp was tossed about by life but not so battered that he couldn’t pick himself up and, with dignity, carry on.  This Saturday, April 14, 2104, guest conductor Richard Kaufman, who has devoted much of his career to the music of film, conducts the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in City Lights with Orchestra.  The program is part of the new SFS film series which delivers edge-of-your seat thrillers, epic dramas, and animated classics on a huge screen in gorgeous Davies Symphony Hall with live music, performed by the San Francisco Symphony.  ARThound has attended several of these film nights and Davies Hall gets delightfully and refreshingly giddy as octogenarians and 8-year-olds connect over the magic of film and music.

The story:   City Lights was released three years into the talkies era but Chaplin decided it should be a silent film with sound effects but no speech.  His beloved Tramp had communicated very effectively with a worldwide audience exclusively through mime—Chaplin’s Little Tramp appeared in over 80 movies from 1914 to 1967—and Chaplin was not going to change the formula.   In City Lights, the Tramp fixes his romantic gaze on someone who can’t return it—a spunky blind flower girl played by the luminous Virginia Cherrill.  He also befriends an alcoholic millionaire (Harry Myers) who forgets who Chaplin is when he’s sober, providing some of the funniest scenes in any of Chaplin’s films.  As the Tramp attempts to get money for an operation that will restore the blind girl’s sight, Chaplin exquisitely interweaves pathos and comedy to wrench maximum emotion from each scene.  When the lonely millionaire contemplates suicide, it’s tragic. When the benevolent Tramp tries to save him from drowning, and accidentally ends up with a weight pinned to his own neck, Chaplin creates an ideal framework for sentiment and laughs.  But that’s just one example in dozens of the seamless and brilliant storytelling that occurs in this film.   The movie’s last scene, justly famous as one the great emotional moments in films is bound to bring tears to your eyes.  When Chaplin’s friend, Albert Einstein, attended the Los Angeles premiere of City Lights, he was reported to be have been seen wiping his eyes.  ARThound especially loves the scene where the Tramp swallows a whistle and starts whistling every time he breathes, gathering a large following of dogs and hailing taxi’s.

The delicate onscreen chemistry between Chaplin and Virginia Cherrill is a delight to behold.  Cherrill had the distinction of being the only leading lady of Chaplin’s silent features whom he neither married nor was linked romantically to.  He cast her solely for her photogenic beauty—without a screen test—and their strong personalities clashed and he fired her halfway through the two-year shoot, only to have to woo her back.

The music: If you haven’t yet experienced the magic of watching a silent film accompanied by live music, City Lights is the film to initiate yourself with and SFS is your orchestra.  The exaggerated dynamics and exquisite timing, so integral to the visual experience of City Lights, are enlivened by a musical score which beautifully punctuates the film’s epic tragic-comic moments. This was Chaplin’s first attempt at composing the music to one of his films and he wrote many of its stirring melodies while acclaimed composers Arthur Johnston (“Pennies from Heaven”) and Alfred Newman assisted with arrangement and orchestration.  The process took six weeks.  And, as was customary in the scoring for silent pictures, the Wagnerian leitmotiv system was employed with Chaplin creating a distinctive musical theme identified with each character and idea.

According to Theodore Huff’s analysis of the City Lights score (“Chaplin as a Composer” in his biography Charlie Chaplin, New York, Henry Schuman, 1951, pp. 234-41),  Chaplin composed twenty discrete themes and ninety-five cues, not including instru­mental bits that animate the action.  Not all the melodies are by Chaplin.  The score generously samples other well-known tunes, either undisguised or in variational form, from “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “Old Folks at Home,” and “Scheherazade” to “I Hear You Calling,” “How Dry I Am,” and “St. Louis Blues.”  These mesh with Chaplin’s more generic renditions of jazz, opera, the waltz, the rhumba, the tango, the apache dance, and his blues fanfare for trumpet, a refrain throughout the film.  On the whole though, the score hardly seems a generic mish-mash–it’s tailored to each scene, it ampli­fies emotions, comments on the action, and even creates jokes.

The legacy: When City Lights debuted in New York in 1931, it was so popular that the theater had continual showings from 9 a.m. to midnight, every day except Sunday. According to film historian Charles Maland, “by the end of 1931, the [United Artists’] ledgers reveal, City Lights had already accumulated more domestic rentals than The Circus and over 90 percent of the domestic rentals that The Gold Rush had garnered since 1925.” Critics showered it with praise as well. The Oscar for Best Cinematography in 1931, however, went to another silent film, F.W. Murnau’s Tabu. Many expected City Lights to win, but it wasn’t even nominated. As film historian William M. Drew speculated, “Perhaps Chaplin’s perceived audacity in persisting in making a silent film in Hollywood after sound had arrived … seemed too great an act of insubordination for the industry to honor.”   (quotes extracted from Mental Floss Magazine, February 24, 2012)

Run-time: Approximately 80 minutes, no intermission.

Pre- and post-show Events: Arrive early and visit the lobby bars for a cocktail created especially for this concert!

  • Casablanca (sparkling wine, Grand Marnier, Remy VSOP, lemon twist)
  • French Connection (Grey Goose, Chambord, pineapple juice, sparkling wine, lemon twist)


Details: “City Lights with Orchestra” is Saturday, April 12, 2014 at 8PM at 8 PM at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco.  LIMITED AVAILABILITY Tickets: $41 to $156; purchase online here, or, call (415) 864-6000. For more information, visit

Getting to Davies:  Davies Symphony Hall is located at 201 Van Ness Avenue, at Grove Street, in San Francisco’s Civic Center, just across the street from City Hall.  The main entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street.

Driving to San Francisco and Parking: Be sure to allow ample time when driving into San Francisco on the weekend and crossing the Golden Gate Bridge—there is frequently congestion en route to Davies Hall.  Arrive early at your parking garage of choice as these also fill up early on weekends.  Recommended Garages:  Two garages are very close to Davies— the Performing Arts Garage (1/2 block)(Grove Street between Franklin and Gough Streets) and Civic Center Garage (roughly 2 blocks) (McAllister Street between Polk and Larken Streets) (both have flat $15 pay cash as you enter policy on performance nights)

April 7, 2014 Posted by | Film, Symphony | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment