Smile: A Reflection on Modern Times (1936)

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Smile though your heart is aching, smile even though it’s breaking.

These are the opening lines to the song “Smile,” which Charlie Chaplin composed as a soundtrack for his 1936 film, Modern Times. Although we never hear the lyrics in this film since John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons would write them in 1954, its melody illuminates every scene that dares to show glimpses of humanity in an industrial age.

Throughout the film, the Tramp struggles in an impersonal world of technology. The marvels of machinery seem to be taking over everything—dictating the pacing of a task, the assembly of a product, and even how to eat. The world is cold and unfeeling, and he easily becomes alienated and alone.

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However, Chaplin would never allow his Tramp to be overpowered by technology. Chaplin once said, “I am for people, I can’t help it.” And people—humanity—are the exact remedy for the ills of industry.

The Tramp meets his counterpart, an orphan girl, played by his then-wife Paulette Goddard. The Tramp and the girl establish individuality through their ability to feel, to hope, to dream, to sing, to dance, and to love. This is what separates them from the machinery of the age. Emotions rescue them from routine. Their humanity brings them hope.

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What’s more, Chaplin consoles us as his film reaffirms that individualism is absolutely necessary. The film opens with sheep milling about, and compares them to people on their way to work. Each of them clearly has a destination, but none are truly living life. None even seem to look ahead of themselves—each step in the chaos is predictable and memorized.

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Chaplin tells us that it is okay to be the black sheep in this situation. Subtle human gestures are nearly extinct in the industrial world, and to see the Tramp reintroduce them with the girl is almost overwhelming. They strikingly bring emotion back into the humdrum world of industry and gain a renewed sense of purpose through one simple but powerful characteristic: the ability to face each situation with a smile.

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This message has held up for 75 years. Technology continues to grow and develop, and we frequently lose ourselves in its materialism. However, what is important cannot be bought or sold. If we do not maintain ourselves and the love and the emotions that make us so very vulnerable and so very human, then we are no more than the machines in the backdrop of the film.

Instead, we should embrace life in its fullest form and simply follow the closing lyric to Chaplin’s “Smile”:

You’ll find that life is still worthwhile, if you just smile.

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2 Responses to Smile: A Reflection on Modern Times (1936)

  1. William Schwantes says:

    Excellent article. I have always been amazed by Chaplins work.

  2. Donnie Huynh says:

    It was a nice article. My parents also enjoyed Chaplin’s works.

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