d. Charles Chaplin / USA / 87 mins.
Modern Times is the funniest of Charles Chaplin's many great films, an endorsement that parallels it with City Lights, his film of greatest emotion, and The Gold Rush, his most deftly balanced work of art. It was also his last silent film – sort of. Made almost a full decade after spoken words began filling cinema, Chaplin kept this film mostly silent, sans a few moments (we'll get to those later). I commended him for holding out on sound in City Lights because its entire essence is enriched with pantomime and silent staging; but the silence of Modern Times, in service of a message rather an emotion, is in many ways more remarkable.
Chaplin made the film in the middle of the Great Depression, after he had taken a tour of Europe. Its plot was pitch-perfect for the time: a man-versus-machine parable that finds his Tramp character working in a factory. His boss treats him like an inanimate object, valued solely for the job he performs, and after tightening one too many bolts, a few of own come lose and he goes crazy from the monotony. He ends up out on the street, unemployed and looking for a job all while trying to stay out of trouble with the law. Paulette Goddard enters as a poor street urchin (who nevertheless is still incredibly beautiful), and together she and the Tramp struggle to fulfill the American dream in one scene after another. (They married the same year the film was released, and like other Chaplin leading ladies, he featured her prominently and gorgeously. She appeared in one more of his films before their divorce in 1942.)
After years of swipes and sneers at the establishment – evading police officers, being kicked out of department stores, sleeping in the gutters, hobnobbing with the wealthy through mistaken identity – Chaplin made Modern Times a cornucopia of his political ideals, a sliced vein from which he bleeds populism, liberalism, and humanitarianism. Many Americans caught in the perils of the Depression could no doubt relate to the class struggle sentiments and the depreciation of their own talents in the burgeoning Industrial Revolution. Chaplin's films never patently avoided politics (he tackled unemployment and poverty in A Dog's Life from 1918, and even his earlier shorts made room for social commentary), but they also weren't this obvious. Yet the effect is sublime because it is keenly aware but in no way polemical. This theme would continue into his 1940 satire The Great Dictator and, in a few respects, his 1947 black comedy Monsieur Verdoux, but his humor and passion never again reached the height of Modern Times.
The strength of the film, more than seventy years on, is still its humor: pure, simple, manic, brilliant humor. It's a damn funny film, and it contains many of Chaplin's most celebrate comedy sequences. The Tramp is force-fed lunch from a haywire machine that promises to "help" assembly-line workers so they don't lose a minute of productivity. The Tramp is sent through the cogs and gears of a machine on the assembly line, a sequence you've already seen even if you've never had the pleasure of watching Modern Times. He is mistaken for a Communist protester, he is sent to prison, and accidentally foils a prison escape. When he and the street girl seek refuge in an empty department store, he amuses her by roller-skating, often coming perilously close to rolling off a ledge. And when the Tramp accidentally snorts cocaine while in prison, I believe I laughed as loudly as I have ever have while watching a movie.
Any review of Modern Times would be remiss not to treat it as well as an obituary for Chaplin's Tramp character. Chaplin debuted the Tramp character in 1914 while working with Keystone Pictures, and the character became the dominant image of silent comedy, in America and abroad. It is hardly an exaggeration to suggest the Tramp was at one point perhaps the most recognizable cinematic character in the world: the derby, the ill-fitting clothes, the ever-present cane, the toothbrush moustache. The Tramp's exit from Chaplin's films marked as much of an end of an era as Chaplin's transition into sound cinema with his next production, The Great Dictator.
As mentioned above, the film isn't entirely silent. Chaplin's score is brisk and delightful, and an overwhelming multitude of sound effects populate the scenes. Chaplin gives speaking roles to both the factory boss, who appears on a gigantic screen and harasses employees in the factory to get back to work (this is before George Orwell's 1984, mind you) and a salesman's voice appears on a phonograph to pitch the force-feeding lunch machine. The use of sound dovetails into the film's politics and the demise of silent cinema; when we finally hear the Tramp's voice in a song at the film's ending (after twenty years of silent cinema), he sings nothing but utter gibberish. The point is explicit: those who have a voice have power and those without will struggle. Modern Times is a good vehicle for that belief, and it comes across smartly. It is one of the real jewels of American comedy – one of the best films of cinema – and it's truly a triumphant demonstration of Chaplin's genius.
23 September 2008
d. Charles Chaplin / USA / 87 mins.