Smile, although your heart is aching… origin of a tune and words to buoy the soul

My curiosity in Charlie Chaplin’s Smile was inspired by a Facebook post. Actually, I did one of those things I try to avoid: I snapped at the click bait, determined to learn “Who Is Your Soul Mate?” Everything I’d tried in the previous 53 years seemed to be inconclusive, so…

The answer? Charlie Chaplin. Yep. One of my boyhood idols. I always fancied myself a “Little Tramp”, and had no idea what a huge superstar he truly was until I was older. What he did best was make people laugh, and find smiles out of his own little miseries and mayhem. He made fun of people, he made fun of life, his silent movies and personae made for fun. That’s all I saw as a young boy. As I studied him later I realized he was brilliant, an autodidact, a self-trained musician, a pioneering filmmaker and politically outspoken. He was passionate – four wives – marrying his last at 54 when she was 18… They were married until he died at 88. But that is a movie for another day…

In sixth grade, I had the chance to play Chaplin in my Brockett Elementary School play. (My old pal David Nelson, way smarter and equally talented – if not more so, played Rudi Vallee. Please. A romantic lead? Me? Nah.) My tramp was well choreographed – I’m sure I bossed the teachers around to tell them what I would do… and it was, as I recall, rather simple, sweet, laughter. Stop and smell a flower in a park where the sign said something like “Don’t smell the flowers.” The Tramp couldn’t abide. But from the moment my scene began, I had to improvise. I came out from mid-stage, back through the streamers (which hadn’t been there during rehearsal) and my twirling cane got caught in the hanging paper. A good twirl or two and it was cotton candy on a stick. The audience laughed. It was funny, and I loved it. In a split second, my 6th grade self gave the cane a “yank”, freed it from the clutches of the streamers, and went on my merry way through the forbidden garden as the scene played out. My first ad lib. It was better than the script. This may, sadly, explain things to my co-workers, producers, editors and folks along the way as to why I always seem to improvise. It’s just the way I learned, I guess. And if it gets a laugh…

So what does this have to do with the headline above? I posted a bit about the story from elementary school on Facebook with the results of the highly unscientific if not soulfully spot-on poll. One of my friends, Sandi D., remarked on Facebook about Chaplin’s music. I had forgotten that. She specifically mentioned Smile. Feeling a bit melancholy these days, and with plenty of time on my hands as a man newly returned to the world of the “independently employed”, I began scanning for info about Chaplin, his music, and that song. I started with smile, and found the tune – and childhood memories came flooding back to me.

For the record, iTunes listed 100 (is that the limit?) versions of the song found in the search “Chaplin, Smile”. Not kidding.

The iTunes search for "Chaplin, Smile" pulled up 100 versions.
The iTunes search for “Chaplin, Smile” pulled up 100 versions.

The most popular? Please don’t judge, since it is quite beautiful (and yes, I get a kick out of Glee when I’m feeling emotionally secure enough)… The version sung by the cast of Glee and can be heard/seen here.  It’s stunning. A hilarious aside here is if you simply search YouTube for Smile and Glee you may get a completely different song of the same name, a cover of the song by Lily Allen. I love me some Lily Allen, too… but her song Smile ain’t the  Chaplin song. I am skipping ahead of myself here. The Glee version is numero uno on Amazon, too.

So back to my search for this important song… The first song I clicked on was one from an artist named Thomas Beckmann, who released a couple of albums of Chaplin compositions, including Charlie Chaplin in 2009. You can learn more about him, if you read the language, on the Swedish cellist’s home page.  Turns out he’s kind of a stud in the global music world. Not to get all teachy with ya here, but maybe you should just listen to this before you move on. Here it is thanks to YouTube and the publisher of the song:

Now you know the tune, right? Well the tune is what Chaplin wrote in 1936. No lyrics. He was a composer, a pioneer of music in film you should know, and this one was written to accompany as a theme for the film “Modern Times”. Chaplin never actually learned to properly “score” music…. so he usually had to hum it or sing it or write it out… but there was no doubt he was the composer.

Now, I wasn’t convinced of why the tune instantly made me cry until I heard the words rush in to my head, and those words were sung, no doubt, by one Nat King Cole. It wasn’t until 1954 that the song had an official name and lyrics, thanks to Geoffrey Parsons ands boss John Turner, who assigned him to write lyrics for the popular tune.

As a kid, I listened to plenty of Nat King Cole on vinyl since he was one of my parents’ favorites (at least based upon the albums they played!) His TV show was off the air before I was born, but I’m guessing it lived on in repeats, since I know I heard his voice and saw his graceful presence on the tiny black and white tube as a child. The words… well… they kind of stick with you. I’m still researching to see if Chaplin actually approved of them…. Based on what I could find on his family-approved website (yep) and on Wikipedia, it must have been ok with him. By this time Chaplin had pretty much washed his hands of McCarthy-era Hollywood and the US. I’ll keep looking for info on this and update what I can learn about what he thought about the lyrics, which apparently were inspired by his own words and life. And when I find that copy of the Tucker Neighbor from the 1970s, I’ll add it to the post.

Thanks to charliechaplin.com for these lyrics. Let’s sing them together, shall we?

Smile, though your heart is aching
Smile, even though it’s breaking
When there are clouds in the sky
you’ll get by
If you smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You’ll see the sun come shining through
for you

Light up your face with gladness
Hide every trace of sadness Although a tear may be ever so near
That’s the time you must keep on trying
Smile what’s the use of crying
You’ll find that life is still worthwhile
If you’ll just
Smile

a screen grab from the trailer for the film Modern Times found on charliechaplin.com
A screen grab from the trailer for the film Modern Times found on charliechaplin.com. Click here to go to that page and watch/listen to it. Maybe you can sing along.

And to finish this off… here are links to a few other versions of Smile… I hope it cheers you up, like it did me. Smile. What’s the use of crying? You’ll find that life is still worthwhile if you’ll just smile.

 

 

 

 

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