Modern Times (1936) – Director: Charles Chaplin Screenplay: Charles Chaplin Starring: Charles Chaplin, Paulette Godard, Henry Bergman OSCAR COUNT (0)
Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times was, nominally, the last film featuring the “Little Tramp” character – the first film hero to become a cultural phenomenon. Chaplin knew that the tramp’s relevancy was coming to an end (indeed, it was already beyond brave to release this silent film in the time when talking films had become what audiences wanted) so he wanted to go out with a bang. In doing so, Chaplin created the perfect comedy –one accessible to the masses due to its slapstick mentality, but also quite deep and subversive. Like the greatest of satirists, Chaplin takes no sides and merely endeavors to point out the absurdity of the entire situation.
It is a feat that has never been repeated – that is why Modern Times still remains one of the greatest films of all time.
The film starts by saying that it will be a story of humanity and the “pursuit of happiness” before cutting to a shot that has become clichéd, but still feels fresh here – a herd of sheep superimposed on workers leaving the subway. This time, the Tramp is a factory worker who undergoes a variety of indignities – from being the guinea pig on an experimental eating machine to suffering a nervous breakdown. In time, he is jailed, released, finds new jobs, and takes a young orphan (Paulette Goddard) girl under his wing, all in a quest to find true happiness.
Of course, Chaplin had frequently tried to empathize with the common man seeking to live the American Dream. Chaplin’s obsession is certainly understandable – like that other great British writer, Charles Dickens, Chaplin had come from a background of poverty. He was never even formally educated. When fame and success was thrust upon him, he barely knew what to do. It was on screen that Chaplin was always the most comfortable. The Tramp was not just a character – it was Chaplin, trying to come to terms with his background.
That is certainly the case in Modern Times. Yes, most of the set pieces were Chaplin’s particular brand of mime – from his infamous walk to the physical pratfalls. But there is a great sense of pathos still present in the tramp. Modern Times was released when the tramp’s philosophy: “Smile, you’ll get by” had a more universal meaning than ever before. Unlike, say, The Gold Rush, many of the audience had experienced what the Tramp had gone through – from poor working conditions to desperate poverty. Chaplin’s power was that he could make them laugh at their own plight.
Every single scene is memorable – and do not share any particular link. This is a film that can be analyzed scene by scene, with no knowledge needed of what happened previously. Almost everyone recalls the scene of Chaplin stuck in the gears of the giant machine (as industry slowly crushes the human spirit, I suppose) and the nonsense song at the end, in which the Tramp’s voice is heard on screen for the first time. I have always favored the segments in which Chaplin and Goddard find their run down shack and attempt to live in it. “It’s paradise” Goddard proclaims, right before Chaplin is hit on the head by a cross bead. A Broom props up the roof; there are numerous holes in the floor. Yet so happy are the two to at least mime the good life that they overlook these flaws to a degree that borders on surrealism. It is a wonderful comedy of the sort of living conditions people had –and were lucky to have. After all, the falling roof over their head was better than no roof at all.
Modern Times has gone on to influence countless works – from novels, to music, to other films. In fact, other people are often given credit for Chaplin’s advances. Whereas Orwell is usually the one who has gained recognition for the use of television as a surveillance tool, Chaplin beat him to it be over a decade. The working class sensibilities of Arlo Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen were also pioneered by Chaplin. Brazil’s aesthetic was heavily borrowed from the factory scenes in this film. Michael Moore wishes his documentaries were half as poignant as Modern Times.
Yet each of these works makes one fatal flaw – they take a side. That is why Modern Times still stands out. Chaplin was an avowed leftist (to the point where he once said that Stalin had “no faults”) but he found blame in both sides of the political spectrum. Strikes are presented in a negative light in the film, as are workers’ uprisings. The Tramp is jailed for supposedly leading one – not exactly the best way to advance one’s goals. Of course, it is the struggles in the factory that everyone remembers. Overall, Modern Times is about how there could be no easy solution for the problems of the times. No one belief is to blame – everyone (even the Tramp) has their own responsibilities. At the end of the day, the most anyone can do to improve their situation is, you guessed it, smile.
Pretty sound advice, I say.
DID YOU KNOW? Chaplin initially wrote a full dialogue script intending for the film to be a regular talking picture. He even filmed a scene in this style before deciding against the idea and making the dialogue in the film play only a partial role.