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Charlie Chaplin: Passionately Fond of the Cello

Chaplin’s Musical Background

Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin. Photo by Strauss-Peyton Studio, bromide print, circa 1920 – National Portrait Gallery, Public Domain.

Fun fact: Charlie Chaplin (16 April 1889 – 25 December 1977), the iconic comic actor who built his career in the era of silent films, also played the cello.

Chaplin’s parents were music hall performers, and he was on stage from age 5.  So it is likely that he at least knew of cellist Auguste van Biene (16 May 1849 – 23 January 1913), the “actor-musician” – a famous music hall star until his death on the stage(!) in 1913.

Chaplin the Cellist

Charlie Chaplin carrying his cello in a soft case along with a violin and a suitcase.

Chaplin on tour with Karno, Sacramento, 5 June 1911. From the archives of Roy Export Co. Ltd.

While on a tour of the USA with the impresario Fred Karno (26 March 1866 – 18 September 1941), he saw a cello in a Los Angeles shop window with a $12 price tag. He wrote:

“With that sum in my hand, I rushed to the store, plunked down the money on the table and said breathlessly: “Give me that,” pointing to the window. They gave me the ‘cello. Only the price did not include a bow. That was an extra few dollars which I did not happen to have. I remember carrying the ‘cello in my hand naked, as it were, for it had no case, and boarding a car for home. So anxious was I to hear its sound that I plucked its strings while in the car. I wonder what people thought of the bleary-eyed boy plucking the strings of that instrument! . . .

I had to wait another week before I had money to buy a bow and a piece of rosin.” (Charlie Chaplin, quoted in Lochner, p. 18.)

Charlie Chaplin playing the cello

Charlie Chaplin playing the cello. United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3b11417. Public Domain. 

He used his downtime to practice both the cello and the violin, writing in his autobiography that he practiced four to six hours a day and took lessons with musicians he met on tour.

His aunt Kate said:

“The ‘cello was the instrument I think he loved best.” (Kate, quoted in Jim Lochner, The Music of Charlie Chaplin, p. 11.)

Charlie Chaplin playing the cello on the set of The Gold Rush.

Charlie Chaplin playing the cello on the set of The Gold Rush (c.1923-1925). Copyright © Roy Export Co. Ltd.

However, by 1925, his filmmaking left him little time for the instrument. Although he posed with his cello on the set of Gold Rush, he told an interviewer:

“although I am still passionately fond of the cello, I seldom play it.” (Charlie Chaplin, quoted in Lochner, p. 19.)

Reverse Cello Setup?

One more note about Chaplin’s cello. He is said to have had his instrument reverse-strung so he could play left-handed, bowing with his left hand and fingering with his right. We know he had his violin set up in reverse, even having the bass bar on the usual treble side. However, in all of the photographs of Chaplin playing the cello, the order of the strings and pegs seems to be in the usual direction, with the A on the left from the player’s perspective.

Note that all of the images showing Chaplin with a cello above appear to be of the same instrument. This was likely his own cello. This means that if Chaplin changed the setup on his cello to play lefthanded, it was after these photos were taken. Or perhaps more likely, as these photos were taken ten years apart, he did not have the setup on his cello reversed – or at least not the strings. (Obviously, the photos don’t show us the internal setup.)

In the yellowed photo below, the last known image of Chaplin with a cello, Chaplin plays a different instrument. It looks as if he borrowed one from a studio cellist at a rehearsal of his film music to pose for a photo. In that case, it makes sense that this cello has the usual setup; an orchestral cello would have the strings in the standard order, even if Chaplin posed playing it lefthanded.

Charlie Chaplin playing the cello c.1930-1940.

Charlie Chaplin playing the cello. Max Munn Autrey, Charles Chaplin Studios. Copyright © Roy Export Co. Ltd.

Chaplin as a Composer

Ever since the early days of his career, Chaplin sought complete artistic control over his work. We see him most frequently on screen as an actor, but he also wrote and directed his own films. With City Lights, he took over the music as well. Later, he went back and added musical scores to some of his earlier films, too.

He and his friend Bert Clark even ran a music publishing company in Los Angeles for a brief time. Unfortunately, they only published three songs before closing the business. One of these was Chaplin’s “Oh! That Cello” (1916). (Click here for the lyrics.)

Cover of Charlie Chaplin's sheet music for "Oh! That Cello"

“Oh! That Cello” – written and composed by Charlie Chaplin (1916). From the archives of Roy Export Co. Ltd.

Here is the song, written and composed by Chaplin, played by cellist Thomas Beckmann with pianist Johannes Cernota:

One of Chaplin’s most famous songs, still performed today, is “Smile,” from the last scene of his film Modern Times (1936). (Here are the lyrics.)

Listen to this 5-cello version by cellist Christian-Pierre La Marca:

Beyond the cello and violin, Chaplin also played the piano and several other keyboard instruments. He often used the piano when composing his music.

At different points in his life, he owned the following keyboard instruments:

  • a piano
  • a Brambach baby grand player-piano
  • a Bilhorn Telescope Organ
Bilhorn Telescope Organ

Bilhorn organ ad, 1904 (from The Institute Tie magazine). The Owls Head Transportation Museum.

  • and a 1923 Robert-Morgan organ in his Beverly Hills home.
    Lita Grey when married to Charlie Chaplin, at their home in Beverly Hills sitting at his Robert-Morton organ.

    Lita Grey Chaplin, when married to Charlie Chaplin, at their home in Beverly Hills, sitting at his Robert-Morton organ, c.1925. Organ Historical Society Pipe Organ Database.

Chaplin as Conductor

In addition to composing music and playing the cello and other instruments, Chaplin also conducted his music. Watch him conduct some of his own compositions in this video:

Chaplin and Famous Musicians

Throughout his career, Chaplin met many famous musicians and entertained a number of them at his home. (See the video in the next section for home video footage.) Here are a few examples of those who crossed his path:

  • Cellist Pau Casals (29 December 1876 – 22 October 1973)
Pau Casals and Clara Haskil at Charlie Chaplin's home in Switzerland

Cellist Pau Casals and pianist Clara Haskil at Charlie Chaplin’s home in Switzerland. Screenshot from the video below. Copyright © Roy Export Co. Ltd.

  • Composer Claude Debussy (22 August 1862 – 25 March 1918)
  • Pianist Clara Haskil (7 January 1895 – 7 December 1960) (whom Chaplin considered as one of the three geniuses of the 20th century, along with Churchill and Einstein)
  • Violinist Jascha Heifetz (2 February [O.S. 20 January] 1901 – 10 December 1987)
  • Pianist and composer Vladimir Horowitz (1 October [O.S. 18 September] 1903 – 5 November 1989)
  • Composer, pianist, and conductor, Sergei Rachmaninov (1 April [O.S. 20 March] 1873 – 28 March 1943)
  • Composer, pianist, and conductor, Igor Stravinsky (17 June [O.S. 5 June] 1882 – 6 April 1971)

Tour of Chaplin’s Library and Music Room by His Son and Grandson

Chaplin’s home in Switzerland is now a museum. Here is a video tour of the family home given by Chaplin’s son, Eugene, and his grandson, Spencer. The video is queued up to start in the library with a discussion of Chaplin’s music and continues in the music room.

There is a clip of home video footage in the music room, and they discuss the pianist, Clara Haskil. At one point (15:38), Haskil is on the arm of Pau Casals, holding his signature umbrella.



Sources

BBC Radio 3 – Sound of Cinema: Chaplin and Music – a very informative radio show that includes wonderful audio clips of Chaplin and his music.

Charlie Chaplin Website – official Charlie Chaplin website. This is a great place to start online. There is a search bar you can use and an excellent list of links.

Charlie Chaplin Archive – the official catalogue and information site of and about Charles Chaplin’s very own and painstakingly preserved professional and personal archives.

Chaplin’s World – formerly Charlie Chaplin’s home, now a large-scale museum dedicated to Charlie Chaplin and his life’s work.

Chaplin Talks – a video podcast hosted by Spencer Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin’s grandson.



Thank you!

Thank you very much to Roy Export S.A.S. for photo permissions and files, and Arnold Lozano for all of his help with the photographs, and for helping us work on tracing the cello’s location.



Charlie Chaplin’s Cello

Do you know the current whereabouts of Chaplin’s cello? If so, please get in touch.



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