It’s Charlie Chaplin’s birthday, a day surely to celebrate. What can you say about him? If you had to make a nomination for greatest artist of the twentieth century, he’d probably be the one to go with – over Picasso, Stravinsky, Hitchcock, even Louis and Duke! Who else in the entire history of art is capable of simultaneously delighting every single human being, from the age of two on, in any culture, no matter how smart or dumb, deep or shallow, who speaks any language at all?
Some documentary crew did, in fact, take a Chaplin movie to some South American tribe who’d never seen movies. The whole tribe, old to young, gathered and died laughing.
Along with practically everything else to do with his movies, Chaplin wrote their music. Now, nobody would say that he was a great composer. But he was more than adequate. And it’s hard to imagine a better song for the greatest ending in the history of movies than his song “Smile.” After every single possible hope has been extinguished, this is what he gives us.
It’s funny but in my memory I always remember them walking off into the sunset, though of course the title is “Dawn.”
“Smile” has captured the imagination of every generation of pop singers since Chaplin wrote it. I believe it was one of Michael Jackson’s favorite songs. But by far the best version ever done of it is Judy Garland’s.
My favorite scene in Chaplin’s works that involves music is the sublime moment in Limelight, where he and Buster Keaton collaborate. As Robert Warshow, in a perfect critical passage, says of the scene, “The difficulties that confront Calvero and Keaton in their gentle attempt to give a concert are beyond satire. The universe stands in their way, and not because the universe is imperfect, either, but just because it exists; God himself could not conceive a universe in which these two could accomplish the simplest thing without mishap. It is not enough that the music will not stay on its rack, that the violin cannot be tuned, that the piano develops a kind of malignant disease – the violinist cannot even depend on a minimal consistency in the behavior of his own body. [. . .] What is left? Nothing except the deep, sweet patience with which the two unhappy musicians accept these difficulties, somehow confident – out of God knows what reservoir of awful experience – that the moment will come at last when they will be able to play their piece. When that moment does come, it is as happy a moment as one can hope for in the theater. And it comes to us out of that profundity where art, having become perfect, seems no longer to have any implications. The scene is unendurably funny, but the analogies that occur to me are tragic: Lear’s ‘Never, never, never, never, never!’ or Kafka’s ‘It is enough that the arrows fit exactly in the wounds they have made.'”