This article is being published to commemorate the 132nd anniversary of Charlie Chaplin’s birth on April 16, 2021.
Michael Jackson once said it was his favorite song: Smile, to which Charlie Chaplin is said to have written the melody.
Why was the song Smile Michael’s favorite song? His brother Jermaine Jackson even sang it as a tribute to the “King of Pop” at his funeral service.
The story of the song began in the early 1930s, when silent film legend Charlie Chaplin was preparing his new film Modern Times (1936): In silent films, it was common to provide the musical background for the cinematic action. Chaplin had a melody and lyrics in mind – but they were merely sketches. After all, Chaplin’s main focus was on the cinematic realization of his last silent film.
Charlie delegated the refinement of his ideas to a “musical secretary”: David Raskin, who took over the part of composer. The fact that Raskin was the composer of Smile was not revealed until the 21st century, as he was credited only as arranger and orchestrator – a common practice at the time.
The lyrics to Smile were not written until 1954 by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons, when Nat King Cole interpreted the song and took it to the music charts.
But how did Michael Jackson become aware of Charlie Chaplin and “his” song Smile?
Already at the age of nine (1967) Michael drew a picture of Charlie Chaplin, which expressed Jackson’s admiration for him. However, it was not only the legend-status that fascinated Michael about Chaplin: it is said that Charlie and Michael were both people who could not spend an extensive childhood because of the early pressure from the entertainment industry. This, they say, connected the two entertainers.
“Michael was always expected to behave as an adult even as a child (…),” writes brother Jermaine Jackson in his Michael Jackson biography. Father Joseph Jackson, who considered himself the manager of his children, founded the band Jackson 5, which consisted of the Jackson brothers. Father Joseph gave Michael the role of lead singer. Michael was not the only member of this band who was to have a successful solo career ahead of him.
Chaplin had a similar fate, albeit with a different biographical background: before he turned ten, his father had died and his mother, who was an actress, could no longer work due to illness. So it was up to Chaplin and his brother to take care of their own well-being: Charlie followed in his parents’ footsteps and became an actor himself, which is how he earned his living.
Turned upside down
In the teaser for the album HIStory (1995), on which Smile was released, one can see the influence of Charlie Chaplin: Michael’s staging in the midst of the army on Budapest’s “Heroes’ Square” is reminiscent of The Great Dictator (1940). Michael dared a break in style: normally, only high-ranking politicians and military officers show themselves in such a staging. Suddenly, in 1995, an artist dared to turn the prevailing ideas upside down. Many people had already become accustomed to the fact that war and oppression were part of everyday life. But few could get used to an artist staging a military parade to promote his new album.
Michael first sang Smile to a select audience at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
Smile begins with an unusual orchestration for Michael Jackson: With a touching voice Michael sings, accompanied by an orchestra, the first words “Smile, though your heart is aching…”. A little later, classical elements of pop music follow, complementing Michael’s voice: As a contrast, one listens at the same time to a passage in which violins take over the direction. At the end of the song, Michael’s voice, which in the meantime loses itself in a re-humming of the melody and whistling notes, is simply accompanied by the piano. The simplicity of this finale demonstrates what it might have sounded like if Michael Jackson had once performed at a recital with piano accompaniment.
The CD booklet accompanying the album HIStory states that Smile is a tribute to Charlie Chaplin, taken from the stage version of the song. David Foster and Michael Jackson himself are credited as producers.
Simon von Ludwig
Cover picture: Michael Jackson in 1988, Photo © Alan Light, taken from Wikimedia Commons
The main sources are an article from “American Songwriter”, another article about the song “Smile”, the book “You Are Not Alone – My Brother Michael Jackson” by Jermaine Jackson, an official article about Charlie Chaplin and the book “Make That Change / Michael Jackson: Message and Fate of a Spiritual Revolutionary” by Sophia Pade and Armin Risi.
Edit from April 19, 2021: The details of when the lyrics were written were added. It was also added that Jackson performed Smile for the first time at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
Edit from May 30, 2021: The information from the CD booklet of the album HIStory was added.