After interviewing legendary composer and arranger Russ Garcia by phone last week, I happened upon the photo you see on the right. It was taken in 1952. The more I looked at the image, the more the older gentleman to Russ' right looked familiar. I thought to myself, "It couldn't be, could it?" So I typed "Russell Garcia + Charlie Chaplin" into Google. Up came an interview from 1985, in which Russ was quoted as saying that he was the one who had written the arrangement for Chaplin's Limelight (1952).
Stunned that this topic never came up in my series of conversations with Russ, I clicked over to the Internet Movie Database, the granddaddy of film websites, and called up Limelight. There I found Russ' name along with someone named Larry Russell listed as "uncredited" music arrangers. I also noticed that Limelight won an Oscar in 1972 for best original dramatic score.
So I went over to the site of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. There, I discovered that three Oscar statues for Limelight's score were awarded to Chaplin, Raymond Rasch (the credited arranger) and Larry Russell. Russ Garcia was not among the recipients.
How odd, I thought. Could the Academy have goofed? Why wasn't Russ included? What could have happened? Was there some confusion, given that Russ' first name (Russell) and Larry's last name were identical? So I called Bruce Davis [pictured], executive director of the Academy. When I relayed what I learned to a member of his staff, I was told to call the next day for a comment. But on Wednesday, when I phoned back, I was told that Mr. Davis "would not have a comment but looked forward to reading my post."
So I called Russ [pictured] for his side of the story. Russ was resistant at first, preferring to let sleeping Oscars lie. It's not in his gentle nature to rehash the past. But with a little coaxing, he told me about his work on Limelight, collaborating with Chaplin, his orchestration for the 65-piece studio symphony, how the Academy might have understandably erred when the 1972 Oscars were handed out, and why Russ has resisted talking about it until now:
JazzWax: Did you arrange Limelight?
Russ Garcia: Yes. I worked with Charlie Chaplin on it. He played the movie's theme when I was over his house with one finger on the piano. Then I scored the theme and composed and arranged the film's incidental music. I also was in the engineer’s booth when it was recorded. [Photo above by Sonja van Kerkhoff]
JW: Why weren’t you credited originally as the score’s sole arranger?
RG: That credit went to Charlie. It was his film. I worked anonymously on hundreds of movies that I never got credit for. You have to understand, that's how it worked. And probably still does. In the case of Limelight, Charlie was the creative force on all aspects of this film, from directing, writing and acting to the music. While he composed the film's theme, he obviously didn't know how to arrange for a symphony-sized orchestra. Neither did Ray Rasch, Charlie’s piano player, an arranger and a friend of mine.
JW: Who was Larry Russell?
RG: He was a composer and movie arranger, and a good one. He also was a nice guy.
JW: What role did he play on Limelight?
RG: None, I’m afraid. He had nothing to do with the picture.
JW: Who recommended you for the job?
RG: I was working in the Hollywood studios at the time and knew Ray [Rasch]. So Ray must have told Charlie about me. At the time, I was already known for being able to write for large-size orchestras and do so fairly quickly. Chaplin had already worked through the theme with Ray when I was first called over to his house.
JW: What was Charlie like?
RG: He was wonderful, a real talent. At one point, Ray told me Charlie had said to him, "Ray, why don't you score this film? I've written all the melodies, why don't you score it?" Ray agreed but he didn’t know how to do it for such a symphony. So he called me in to work on it. I orchestrated the score, which is what you hear when you watch the movie.
JW: You also mentioned composing the incidental or background music.
RG: I had to do a lot of composing based on Chaplin's single theme. When I first went over to his house [pictured], Chaplin played the theme on the piano and I had to write it down. There was no written music.
JW: Was it improvised on the spot?
RG: Oh, no. Charlie clearly had thought it out in advance. From there I had to build music for an entire movie, and time the music so it was in sync with what was up on the screen.
JW: Was Chaplin funny?
RG: Funny? He wasn’t dressed like a tramp or clowning when we were working together. [laughs] But he was a gentleman. He had the music he wanted planned in his head. The guy was a genius. He could do it all—the ballet steps, the choreography, every camera angle, the script, and the musical theme. Charlie was a perfectionist. He knew what he wanted, and he’d get it, too.
JW: Did you conduct the orchestra?
RG: No. Charlie had a conductor named Keith Williams.
JW: Did you score the film while it was in production or upon completion?
RG: I believe I had to wait until it was done. Remember, they used to shoot every scene in those days with a long shot, medium shot and close up. The film's editor then would edit the film from these shots. So from the scoring perspective, you don’t know how long scenes are going to be until they're pieced together.
JW: Who has the score now?
RG: I don't know. I suspect the studio archive or Chaplin’s estate.
JW: Is your name on the score?
RG: It might have been. I had score pads with my name embossed on them. Or I could have been using score pads that Chaplin’s studio gave me. Given that the Academy didn't know who wrote the score when they researched it, probably not.
JW: How do you think this mix-up occurred?
RG: From what I understand, the Academy wanted to give Chaplin an Oscar to recognize his work on the film while he was still alive.
[Editor's note: Limelight's score was nominated for an Oscar 20 years after it was completed because the film wasn't released in the U.S. until 1972. In 1953, after the movie's London premier, the Justice Department began investigating Chaplin's "subversive tendencies," and pressure was placed on U.S. theaters not to show it. The investigation caused Chaplin to relocate to Switzerland. He died in 1977.]
JW: How do you think they went about doing that?
RG: From what I understand, when the Academy asked Chaplin, "Who arranged the music?," he told them Ray Rasch. When they went to Ray’s widow and asked who else arranged the score, she said, "Someone named Russell.” The only person who came to their minds was Larry Russell, who also was a film arranger. But Larry, too, had passed away, and when they asked his widow if he had scored it, she said yes, he must have. So Oscars were given to Larry and Ray posthumously along with Charlie. Actually, I'm not that comfortable talking about this because I don't want to make trouble for anyone or spoil anyone’s fond thoughts or memories.
JW: Understood, but setting the record straight is important. What happened after the Oscar was awarded?
RG: The next day my phone in New Zealand rang off the hook. Keith Williams, the conductor of the Limelight score, called to apologize. So did Larry Russell’s son. I'm not sure why everyone was sorry after the award was given. Maybe they didn't realize my role until those who were actually there started talking. I don't know. I'm sure it didn't help that I lived so far away.
JW: Did you ever call the Academy to make a fuss?
RG: Goodness, no. I’m a Baha'i. It’s part of my faith never to be the source of grief to anyone. I didn't want Larry's widow or family or anyone to feel bad. I still don't. I've won plenty of awards. I just forgot about it.
JW: Are you upset by what happened?
RG: Me? [laughs] Of course not. I know that I arranged the score for the film. And so do those who were there and those who have spoken to those who know. At my age, 92, I'm more focused on moving forward.