Charlie Chaplin, a daughter, a granddaughter: changing my perception of "Smile"

So today is the 125th birthday of Charlie Chaplin. I could assume that he needs no introduction, being one of the famous pioneers of film, but I have to confess that I have never myself actually watched the entirety of any of his films. I went through much of my life not knowing much about him at all, in fact, other than caricatures of his famous character “the little tramp”, which to me just seemed dated and weird, and therefore not of interest. So I never looked further into his films or his life: it was all just ancient history to me.

But two years ago, by chance, I learned more about him.

The song “Smile”

Two years ago, I discovered that the music for the famous song “Smile” was actually composed by Chaplin. This intrigued me, so I learned a bit more about him.

By the way, here is a video clip from his 1936 film “Modern Times” featuring the musical theme that became the song “Smile”:


One thing I learned is that Chaplin had a very complicated family life, with four marriages, the last of whom was 36 years younger than him (and eventually had eight children with him). One of these children was Geraldine Chaplin. Her name rang a bell, because I vaguely remembered seeing her in the 1973 film “The Three Musketeers” way back!

It turns out that not only did his daughter Geraldine also take up acting, but her daughter, Oona Chaplin also did. Indeed, I found all this out by accident: two years ago, I had been looking for a karaoke version of “Smile” to sing along to, when by accident I found a video of Geraldine and Oona Chaplin singing “Smile” together! It was fascinating watching this performance of Charlie Chaplin’s music by a daughter and granddaughter of his:


A couple of days ago, I saw this interesting review of a biography of Charlie Chaplin calling him a “monster”. Of course, we know that an actor’s character’s persona may not match real life. Such is the complexity of humanity.

Other performances of “Smile”

There have been many famous classic performances of “Smile” since it became a song with lyrics in 1954. I’ll share here one that is kind of creepy, yet compelling, maybe appropriately so given what we know of Chaplin’s complicated life. Here’s a video of Judy Garland singing the song. I find it utterly over the top but hard to resist; she gives the song a crazed intensity and sadness rather than a comfortable feel-good reading. Of course, her personal life was also a mess.

How I perceive “Smile” now

Before I knew about Chaplin’s satirical film “Modern Times” and the man himself, I suppose I considered “Smile” something of a wishful, sentimental song, although with a lovely melody and seductive harmonic progression, but now it’s completely impossible for me to think of this song without a sense of irony.

How about you? How have you perceived the song up till now? Did you know the back stories? How do you perceive the song now, after reading this post? Can you hear it or sing it again the way you did before?

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