Charlie Chaplin, Nat King Cole, Judy Garland
It’s a political film critical of industrialisation, lamenting the hardships of the Great Depression. Graham Greene feared it would be seen as a Communist film, and indeed Goebbels banned it. By 1954 when the theme was arranged into a song, Chaplin was banned from the USA.
Here’s the original, purely instrumental, with its gorgeous harmonies:
So despite the smoochy strings, it’s innocent of sentimentality; rather, it’s a parody of the domestic bliss of which most people are deprived, recognising the challenges of life.
It’s said to be inspired by Puccini, but while the melody is indeed close to Ah, quegli occhi! (cf. Jeepers creepers), it was a more generic sound that Chaplin (one of a select group of left-handed violinists!) seems to have offered to his young arranger David Raksin to embellish (see here and here). If we’re playing the melodic similarities game (always a vexed issue; see also Unpromising chromaticisms), its contour is echoed in the opening of Glenn Miller’s Moonlight serenade:
Modern times is also famed for its nonsense song (cf. Doubletalk):
Talkies had already replaced silent films, but Chaplin persisted; the song is the only time in the Little Tramp films that his voice is heard—ironically, singing gibberish.
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One doesn’t have to know Chaplin’s film to relish the 1954 vocal version by Nat King Cole (one of rather few male pop singers I find expressive):
The bland lyrics may appear to give it a more explicitly sentimental message—the trite concept of being cheery in the face of adversity later satirised in Always look on the bright side of life. But here the effect is still bitter-sweet, transcending the lyrics (like Stand by your [lying, cheating, alcoholic] man.
So with all its further heart-rending harmonic shifts and inspired touches of orchestration, it’s still a sad song. Its mood also reminds me of Michel Legrand’s exquisite You must believe in spring, with its more sophisticated lyrics.
Judy Garland’s 1963 version has a special poignancy:
The Soul music programme on Smile is here.
Of course, smiling is a cultural issue: for smiling in China, see here.