Pandemic Diary 21: Reasons to ‘Smile’

“Buck up—never say die—we’ll get along.”

* * * *
Charlie Chaplin never published lyrics for the piece of music with which he concluded his 1936 film, Modern Times. The Tramp’s last gesture to the Gamine (Paulette Goddard) before the two literally walk off toward the sunset is to point to his mouth and draw a line up along his cheek.

“What’s the use in trying,” she had asked a moment earlier. The two are on the side of a road with no cars to hitch a ride, with all they own in kerchiefs on sticks. “Buck up—never say die—we’ll get along,” the Tramp’s last title card reads. The two walk off down the road and instrumental music swells and the film ends:


Chaplin referred to it as a the “Love Theme from Modern Times,” if he referred to it at all. He had written a great deal of music for many of his films, but the place of Modern Times in his history and in cinema history was established almost from the point of its release: the film was acclaimed as one of his triumphs and it remains on lists of all-time classic films to this day.

Thus the tune that plays as his character makes the smile gesture with his hand, and the Tramp and the Gamine cheer one another with smiles and make their way into the rest of whatever comes after movie credits end came to be known as “Smile.” In 1954, English lyricists John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons added lyrics, gave the song its title, and Nat King Cole recorded a top ten hit version.

The lyrics are schmaltzy, and even though the official Charlie Chaplin website devotes a page to the song’s history and reprints the lyrics, the page offers no editorial comment about the lyrics beyond this plain statement: “The film soundtrack is only instrumental, but the Turner and Parsons lyrics must have been inspired by this scene.” The page embeds the closing scene of Modern Times.

Chaplin’s tune was not noteworthy for its absence of lyrics, and the lyric is more insistent and bossy in its instruction to smile than the moment in Chaplin’s film depicts. The speaker in the song simply tells some unknown person who is not smiling that he or she ought to

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

Chaplin’s Tramp tells the Gamine, “We’ll get along.” That simple sentence—one of partnership, community, friendship, love—is a vitally different one from “You’ll get by.” Okay, if I am supposed to smile “even though my heart is breaking,” what are you doing, person singing this song? Oh, right, you have another verse to sing …

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

 
“What’s the use of crying,” is a line that represents a personal philosophy that I have come to reject in my life. Crying has its uses, after all. Tears make the smile that may come again be felt more deeply, which I think is something that comes closer to Chaplin’s thought in his film. “Buck up—we’ll get along,” bespeaks of friendship and empathy where, “You’ll get by / If you smile through your fear and sorrow” tells me to stop making the singer feel sad.

Now, every major singer who has had a hit with this song, from Nat King Cole to Michael Jackson to Lady Gaga in the One World: Together at Home concert on April 18, has presented the song with an abundance of vocal empathy. Their presentations disagree with my interpretation of the lyric, which is fine.

 
The concert raised $128 million for COVID-19 relief, as of today, April 21.

There are many reasons to cry and to feel fear and anxiety in our pandemic moment. Friends have died. When COVID-19 started to affect life in New York State and businesses in my county started to restrict the number of people who could gather, I said to a friend that this regulation came from an abundance of caution but that I did not think any of us would know anyone who contracted this virus. Wow, was I incorrect. Friends of friends of mine, people whom I have met, have died this month, from this virus.

A statewide quarantine only made sense, and it is likely that it was put in place a week or two late in New York State.

The quarantine elicits emotions with which I have been unfamiliar in my life: what word captures the sad awareness that I have not seen in person even one person whom I know other than my landlord/housemate for more than a month? There have been moments of despondency that I have not experienced in my life and which have extended from moments into days. I have long considered myself to be a lucky man; the lifelong absence of despondency, even when I was informed that I was going to die sooner rather than later, is perhaps the greatest bit of luck that was given me, I can now state.

Further, there is a deep family sadness in my life right now which will forever color my memories of this first half of 2020. The word “goodbye” has started to acquire nuances and shades of permanence that I had been blessed enough to not yet ponder in my life.

And yet, and yet. There are reasons to smile. A community that has been a part of my life for almost a decade has moved to sustain itself. Friends reach out to one another. People make masks for each other. Friends who are nurses are thanked every day. Neighbors cook meals for neighbors. No one tells me to smile, but we tell one another that “We’ll get along.”

Orchestras and other musicians have taken to social media to perform together while apart, thanks to the services of various web meeting platforms. We all saw the Rolling Stones perform “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”—a message some dumb people among us chose violently to ignore this week—at the One World concert (Charlie Watts’ air drumming is perfect):

 
And the musicians of l’Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France put together a video performance for UNICEF and COVID relief that was released today. Like all the others in the pandemic, each musician—one hundred of them—is in his or her home. There are some amusing moments of musicians visiting their kitchens while they await their next appearance in the piece.

The orchestra chose to perform Chaplin’s “Smile” (sans lyrics) and it elicited tears and smiles all at the same time from this rather schmaltzy music fan named me:

 
Buck up. We’ll get along. We’re in this orchestra together.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for April 21 asks us to reflect on the word, “Instrument.”

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