Behind Chaplin’s Smile

I’m not old enough to have grown up with Charlie Chaplin, but my Great Grandmother was and she’s the one who introduced me to his films.  When I watch Chaplin films, I’m reminded of the things in her house that were indications of the Great Depression era:  crochet placemats made out of used bread wrappers, multi-colored soap melted down from odds and ends of other soaps, and jewelry created from old spoons, to name a few.  She also had a wild crow that flew around freely through her house and would hide her dentures, which doesn’t really apply to Charlie Chaplin, except that I can’t talk about her house without mentioning that anecdote.  My point is that there is something about Chaplin’s stories of the struggle to maintain rent, food and dignity in a time of devastating poverty that reminds me of the items in my Great Grandmother’s house.  I can only imagine how much the romance and laughter of his films must have meant to someone like her during those hard times.

I was excited to see that Charlie Chaplin the Musical was playing on Broadway.  One day after class at the Broadway Dance Center, I waltzed over to Times Square and got myself a half-priced ticket at TKTS and got an excellent seat in the orchestra.  The guy behind me said to his friend, “What do you think?  Are we going to hate this?”  Of course I was skeptical too, I  mean, how could they possible do justice to the charismatic, graceful, genius that was Charlie Chaplin?

There were some beautiful moments when the main actor truly embodied Chaplin and you could hear and sense the awe from the audience when it happened.  However, it’s kind of like posing in ballet, it may look pretty, but it’s not the same as truly dancing through the whole performance.  With that said, I still felt like the play was worthwhile and I was grateful to immerse myself in a sincere homage to Chaplin (even if it seemed a little cornball to have him sing).  It does seem appropriate to have a Broadway musical about Chaplin, given his Vaudeville roots.  I was pleased that they chose the central theme of the play to be about his relationship to his mother (committed to an asylum) and how the abandonment and poverty he endured as a child influenced his films.  The fact that his father was an alcoholic also makes his infamous scenes of playing drunk seem all the more poignant.  As he is quoted, “To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain, and play with it.”

“Smile”, a song that Chaplin composed and was featured in Modern Times, is one of my favorites and sadly absent from the play.  This song seems to embody the spirit of Charlie Chaplin and the era that influenced his body of work.  And it makes me picture my Great Grandmother, who though she suffered many hardships and never had much, always loved to laugh.

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