#63 (tie) – Modern Times (1936), dir. Charlie Chaplin

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Motormouth. Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp gets a taste of the latest technology in Modern Times, the comedian’s slapstick satire of industry and the plight of the working man.

We’ve previously mentioned on this blog that Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 film City Lights very much went against the grain by being a silent picture at a time when sound had become all the rage in Hollywood. By that measure, the comedian’s next feature — Modern Times (1936) — is positively reactionary. Modern Times was meant to be Chaplin’s first foray into the all-talking movie, but he felt (and rightly so) that his Little Tramp character was essentially a vehicle for silent expression. Modern Times technically isn’t a silent film (we’ll get into that), but in most of the essential ways it is a product of the silent era. “Reactionary” isn’t just applicable to the film’s style, but also potentially its content. Modern Times doesn’t offer a story so much as a satirical broadside against the industrialized world — particularly the dehumanization of mechanized production and the pain and poverty experienced by large swathes of society. So, the film can be seen as reactionary in its insistence on the good old ways in a disturbing new world, but its sympathy for the little man and the worker made it revolutionary enough for Chaplin to be branded a Communist in 1950s Red Scare America. Whatever your take, Modern Times absolutely was the last silent film made in Hollywood, and it is appropriate that the Little Tramp would provide the final word — or intertitle — on the form. (87 min.)

J. – Hmmmm… You know, I’m just not in love with Chaplin’s movie sensibilities. This viewing of Modern Times (my second time) confirmed it for me. I enjoyed it; I was amused by it; and I found it very visually appealing. But all the same, it was missing something for me. It made me chuckle, but it rarely made me laugh. I frequently found it clever, but never insightful — and I do think the movie was trying to be insightful. The satire was so broad or gentle that it lacked punch and sting, even though it might have been dexterously and inventively pulled off.

I wanted to lay that on the table before I talk about what I really liked about the movie (which is quite a bit). One particular highlight was the use of sound in Modern Times. Save a scene at the end, spoken dialogue is only heard if it comes through a machine — be it a video screen, a record player, or the radio. That was a stroke of genius, enabling the use of sound to serve that greater theme of mechanization and dehumanization — we now communicate through machines rather than with each other. It also made the Tramp character more human. It’s easy to feel a certain disconnect with silent acting because of its bigness and lack of natural movement and expression, but by having actual speech provided by machines, it humanizes the silent players and makes their behavior feel more natural — or at least more appropriate — than it really is.

S. – I agree that sound was used very cleverly in Modern Times and found it interesting, if somewhat perplexing, to see sound being classed with inhumane technology when people communicate all the time with sound, machines not so much.

The factory worker scenario was a natural one for the Tramp whose eccentricity and unpredictability were allowed to run riot over the staid production line environment. Like you, J., I found plenty to smile at as Chaplin does his thing but it is amusing rather than surprising or amazing. I wonder if part of it stems from the slickness with which Chaplin inhabits his onscreen world. It is almost like watching a dance routine that has been rehearsed to perfection. There is no tension created because you know that even if things go wrong the Tramp will respond to it smoothly and most likely in a manner that will make you grin. Considering the grim social backdrop of the piece I never felt concerned for the character, it almost felt as though by happily gliding through such dire straits that the Tramp was undermining the gravity of the workers’ conditions. I guess having the Communist tag slapped on him indicates that this was not the opinion at the time.

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Though largely a silent film, Modern Times does make very clever use of sound by having most of the spoken dialogue being delivered through machines, including this video link up that allows the boss to make sure nobody is goofing off in the restroom.

J. – I can definitely see where you’re coming from, S. The humor really does feel rather safe because it is so deftly executed. There is a rehearsed quality to so much of it that at times the comedy itself seems like it’s on a conveyor belt. Although, there are moments with an energy and flicker of danger that really elevate the comedy. I think we both got the biggest kick out of the sequence when Chaplin is strapped into the feeding machine — see top image above. It starts out as a genial enough bit of comedy, but when the machine goes on the fritz and practically assaults the poor Tramp, it is hysterical because it is so out of control. (And even though this is a bit of physical comedy, that scene hangs heavily on the sounds emitted by the malfunctioning machine, which again shows Chaplin’s grasp of sound.) I also really enjoyed the scene in jail when the Tramp inadvertently takes a massive dose of cocaine. Once again, it’s the unpredictable movements and the element of risk that charge that scene when so many others feel all too safe and by the book.

But I think what really disappoints me about the film is the broadness and sloppiness of the satire. Chaplin clearly doesn’t think too highly of industrial society, but what exactly is he in favor of? The police are made out to be bullies who oppress those who are down on their luck, but the Tramp constantly seeks to be in prison so he won’t have to work. Paulette Goddard’s streetwise Gamin is devoted to helping out her sisters, but then suddenly abandons them and never looks back. Big plot and thematic inconsistencies like these just seem like very lazy writing to me. I likely wouldn’t mind if I found the film funnier or if I didn’t think Chaplin was trying to make a real statement with Modern Times. But I really think he is. The grandiose pointlessness of the machinery (à la Metropolis), the depictions of poverty and misery, the mental suffering spurred by work on the assembly line, the senseless murder of the Gamin’s working-stiff father — it’s all clearly supposed to add up to something, but it never quite manages to come together.

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A lot of the humor is on the safe side or is more gently amusing than hilarious, but when Modern Times gets a little more dangerous, it also gets a lot funnier — such as in this scene where an imprisoned Tramp inadvertently takes a Scarface-worthy blast of cocaine.

S. – The feeding machine sequence was skilfully constructed, particularly the delicate mouth wiping feature that stayed true to form even after the violent assault by corn. I also enjoyed the blind-folded roller-skating, perhaps because my roller-skating skills are on par with Goddard’s and the danger did seem real and immediate!

But there is a distance I feel with Chaplin where I cannot put myself in his shoes so I never become truly engaged with the action on screen. Having seen three Chaplin films now I think it is the character of the Tramp that I just don’t relate to. Something about it strikes me as disingenuous. I do think dabbling in a serious social issue as the canvas for an extended comedy routine is a mistake. On one level it acknowledges the struggles of the working class to eke out an existence for themselves but on the other it makes light of the experience. I also found the ending extremely superficial and unsatisfying. While that final shot is visually fantastic, the simple walking off into the sunset away from the troubles laid out during the movie is bewildering.

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Chaplin is an adept physical comedian, but more in the way he carries himself rather than through stunt-driven shenanigans, like those of Buster Keaton. That said, his dangerous dance on rollerskates while employed as a department store security guard is an excellent bit of derring-do comedy.

J. – I think some of that feeling probably stems from the film upending the conventions of comedy. It’s that old notion that in tragedy you end with a death and in comedy you end with a wedding. There’s usually a victory of some form or another at the end of a comedy, but the Tramp and the Gamin are the losers in this one, fleeing the law because they can’t get an even break. Which I actually think is a decent ending, particularly because the whole movie seems to be about the inability of the little guy to get ahead in this world.

And I suppose one could argue that the Tramp does get the girl in the end, but that brings me to one of the elements of the film that I find unnerving: what exactly is the relationship between the Tramp and the girl? Because, she is a girl. The movie makes it very clear that the Gamin is under age, but the relationship sketched out by the film suggests something other than strictly friendship, and you can’t say that the Tramp features as a surrogate father. It’s all a bit unorthodox and unsettling. But maybe I’m reading too much into things because I know that Chaplin in real life frequently got into romantic relationships with teenage girls. Goddard (who was 25) and Chaplin (who was 46) were married not long after Modern Times was released, but Goddard was the only one of Chaplin’s four wives who was out of her teens when he married her (ick!). Just seems strange that the one non-teenager married by Chaplin stars as an underage pseudo-love interest in this film.

Such matters aside, the film does look marvelous. The cinematography and the elaborate machinery of the factory sets are both equally fantastic. Chaplin definitely seems to have improved greatly as a visual stylist, as his framing and camera movements have gone from strength to strength over the three films of his we have discussed. I think City Lights is a an attractive movie, but it has nothing on Modern Times, which is almost too good looking to be a comedy. I particularly enjoyed the crane shot as Chaplin tries to bring a tray of food across a crowded dance floor — it’s a bit that looks great and is quite amusing, but as is often the case in this movie, the gag lingers too long and gets drained of its funny.

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Paulette Goddard is appealingly bright and fun as the Gamin, but the role generally feels ill thought out and incomplete. In general, Modern Times feels more like a series of sketches than a cohesive film, which makes the satire somewhat unfocused and the relationships half-baked.

S. – Modern Times does look wonderful, the sets are complex and creatively used. The gag sequences flow smoothly and you never have to wait very long for some new silliness to manifest. After immersion in the mayhem of the Marx Brothers, however, it all seems far too tame.

I think the central relationship suffers from the same glossing-over that the social setting does. You are presented with a scenario that is far from simple: as you noted, J., it is made explicit that the girl is considered a juvenile under the law. Yet we are asked to consider these details as mere window dressing to the performances on screen. The disconnect required to do that makes the whole experience superficial. Chaplin has produced a slick, amusing and highly professional comedy that was fun to watch without being particularly memorable.

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Whatever our gripes about Modern Times, it must be conceded that it is generally a lovely film to watch and frequently amusing — even if it lacks the laughs and heart of City Lights. And this final, gorgeous shot is a grand send off to one of cinema’s most iconic characters and to silent film in general.

Related yammers:
#50 (tie) – City Lights (1931), dir. Charlie Chaplin
#36 (tie) – Metropolis (1927), dir. Fritz Lang
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