Song 220: Charlie Chaplin, “Smile” (1936)

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Charlie Chaplin wrote, directed and composed the scores for most of his movies. It’s that last one that amazes me, because he composed all that great music while, y’know, helping create modern film as we know it. How he had the time and energy to squeeze composition into the artistic process for masterpieces like City Lights and The Gold Rush I’ll never understand.

One of the films for which he wrote the music is Modern Times, an incredibly funny and poignant movie about industrialization. Throughout the film, Chaplin’s Little Tramp repeatedly finds and loses a woman who he tries to impress in various ridiculous ways. At the end (spoiler alert!), he and the woman walk slowly and uncertainly down a long road. It’s a very sweet scene, and it’s made sweeter by the fact that she’s only smiling because he convinces her to.

The song playing in that scene is “Smile,” which was technically not a song at all. It was just a portion of the film’s score until John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons added lyrics in 1954. But it’s a beautifully written piece of music, one whose sadness perfectly matches that closing scene of two people fooling themselves into happiness so they can just keep going. In a sense, that’s what Chaplin was always about; he was always the naive optimist no matter the circumstances: no food? I’ll eat my shoe.

The lyrics by Turner and Parsons not only fit that description, they fit the scene from the film: “If you smile through your fear and sorrow/Smile and maybe tomorrow/You’ll see the sun come shining through.” Nat King Cole sang the original version of the song in 1954, and countless others have done the same, from Jeff Lynne to Michael Jackson, Natalie Cole to Lyle Lovett.

I keep going back and forth on whether the song is ironic or sincere, but I think it’s somewhere in between. Like the movie scene, “Smile” is about kidding yourself to reach genuine happiness, which is something we all do with minor distractions every day, whether it’s with a cup of coffee or a good book. Or a damn fine piece of music.

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