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Classical 101

Charlie Chaplin: Smile in Modern Times

Charlie Chaplin was born on April 16, 1889. He was a genius of the cinema. Watch The Gold Rush, City Lights, or Modern Times and you may find it hard not to agree. The depth of humanity, as well as comic genius in these films are still as astonishing today as when they first appeared so many years ago. After he came to the U.S. from England, Chaplin heard Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg (Tannhäuser and the Singers' Contest at Wartburg) at the Metropolitan Opera in 1914. Even though he didn't understand German or know the story, he was moved to tears by the music. In the early days of silent films, he met with musicians such as Ignacy Paderewski and Leopold Godovsky; and he set up his own music publishing company. Later, he would count among his friends and acquaintances: Sergei Rachmaninoff, Vladimir Horowitz, Igor Stravinsky, and Arnold Schoenberg. Music would become an integral part of his films.

Smile, Modern Times, 1936

By the mid-1930S, when Modern Times was released, the silent film era Chaplin helped define had ended, but because he had feared that the universal appeal of the Tramp character so closely identified with him would be lost if we heard him speak, there is no dialogue in what is essentially still a silent film. There are sound effects and the human voice is heard when presented through radio or on an early TV screen, but music, that's another language, perhaps more universal, and Chaplin embraced that fully, writing most of the themes that are heard in his film's soundtracks and used them to good effect. Here's the version from a scene in Modern Times: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ps6ck1ejoAw Of all the tunes he wrote, Smile is probably the most loved.  It appears in the soundtrack of Modern Times several times, but is now best-known in the version with lyrics, from the 1950's, made famous by Nat King Cole and others who have performed it since. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L2XyrqV9ldo The funny thing about music and moods is that just hearing a favorite tune at the right moment can change the whole feeling of things. Even though Chaplin was reluctant to speak in films (though he would, beginning with The Great Dictator in 1940), music was fully compatible with his artistic vision, and he used it masterfully to enhance the emotions we see expressed on the screen. What can you do when watching Modern Times but smile? Here's another clip from the film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lowWOVmVois