Modern Times by matthew c. hoffman

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In discussing The Gold Rush with French artist and director Jean Cocteau, Chaplin complained, “The dance of the bread rolls. That’s what they all congratulate me on. It is a mere cog in the machine. A detail. If that was what they specially noticed, they must have been blind to the rest!” The same could be said of Modern Times. Today, people remember the iconic image of the Little Tramp literally becoming a cog in the machine– like film itself running through a camera– but it is only a detail. New audiences will see all the other great things around that one famous image.

The inspiration for that moment of comic fantasy is rooted in Chaplin’s own childhood. Silent film historian Jeffrey Vance writes, “The image of man eaten by machine was formed in Chaplin’s mind when, as a boy, he worked three weeks at Straker’s, a printing and stationery shop, operating a Wharfdale printing machine. The first day he was a nervous wreck for he felt the enormous machine, over twenty feet long, was going to devour him.”

Modern Times contains some rather heavy subject matter for a comedy. You wouldn’t think there’d be many laughs in a film about nervous breakdowns, strikes, unemployment, and especially hunger. And yet, it is one of the greatest comedies Chaplin ever made. His genius, as seen with films like The Gold Rush, was in his ability to balance these darker aspects of story with his humor and humanity.

It’s a story about trying to maintain one’s humanity in the modern world. Social success must not subjugate individuality, and Charlie keeps his until the very end. (The Tramp would only snap his fingers at the idea of climbing a social ladder.) This is a story about how human relationships are dehumanized under the weight of modern technology. We see how the Big Brother network around Charlie’s little factory worker reduces human interaction. (This is 1984 in 1936.) In the world of Modern Times people– more specifically, the movers and shakers– communicate through large-screen monitors. How different is that from a 2011 society that interacts through cell phones and computers?

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Like his previous films, Charlie is socially alienated by society, and it’s not until he meets the pretty street waif—known as the Gamin, played by Paulette Goddard– that he finally finds someone to connect with on a spiritual– rather than physical– level. She is his partner. With her, he dreams of finding a place, a sense of home, though we doubt there could ever be a home for this eternal wanderer.

Chaplin had always been socially conscious, and the origins of the story can be traced to a 1931 world tour he took after the premiere of City Lights. While on this trip he saw the effects of the Depression around the world. He met with various leaders, from Churchill to Gandhi, who shaped his thoughts. This awareness of what was going on around the globe led Chaplin to make a film that reflected the social and economic conditions of its time. Much has been written about Chaplin’s own politics– and most of it wrong. Chaplin himself had said that he was suspicious of a picture with a message. There’s no political agenda behind this film, and you can’t pigeonhole Chaplin as easily as some sensationalist writers have. The Little Tramp defies all political -isms.

Graham Greene, then a film critic, said that the film had no real point of view in the way of politics: “Mr. Chaplin, whatever his convictions may be, is an artist and not a propagandist. He doesn’t try to explain, but presents with vivid fantasy what seems to him a crazy comic tragic world without a plan… He presents, he doesn’t offer political solutions.”

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I think about the moment in the film when Charlie innocently picks up a red flag that has fallen off the back of a truck and starts waving it—prompting the police to arrest him as an agitator. By the early 1950s,  Charles Chaplin was still waving a flag of humanitarianism. In the political climate of the day, he was labeled something he was not.

Modern Times is a silent film with a silent rhythm– shot mostly at silent speed (18 or 16 frames per second). Only the dialogue scenes had to be shot at 24 frames. To make a silent movie almost ten years after sound’s arrival was a daring move in 1936 even with Chaplin’s tremendous name recognition. By this time, audiences had grown accustomed to sound comedy as exemplified by the Marx Brothers. At one point during production, Chaplin did have some dialogue sequences in mind for his characters…

Girl: What’s your name?

Tramp: Me? Oh, mine’s a silly name. You wouldn’t like it. It begins with an “X.”

Girl: Begins with an “X”?

Tramp: See if you can guess.

Girl: Not eczema?

Tramp: Oh, worse than that—just call me Charlie.

Girl: Charlie! There’s no “X” in that!

Tramp: No—oh, well, where d’ya live?

Girl: No place—here—there—anywhere.

Tramp: Anywhere? That’s where I live.

But this dialogue was discarded. The Tramp had always been a universal clown, and giving him a voice, a specific language and identity, would’ve detracted from that special quality that made him an international figure. “For years, I have specialized in one type of comedy—strictly pantomime,” Chaplin had said in 1931. “I have measured it, gauged it, studied it. I have been able to establish exact principles to govern its reactions on audiences. It has a certain pace and tempo. Dialogue, to my way of thinking, always slows action, because action must wait on words.”

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But Modern Times is far from silent. It is filled with a dynamic use of sound. Note how the human voices that we hear at the factory are all reproduced through some kind of mechanical device, such as the radio and the closed-circuit television. Sound effects like Chaplin’s gurgling stomach enhance the comedy. Orchestral sounds even substitute for the human voice. And then there’s the brilliant film score that Chaplin created with musical arranger David Raksin, who is most famous for his theme to the film noir Laura in 1944.

Much has been written about the evolution of this great film by authors more astute than me. The best books on Chaplin are the ones written by authors David Robinson and Jeffrey Vance, both have contributed wonderful introductions and visual essays to these films on the recent dvd releases. The special features are amazing and the material is essential viewing for those who want to learn more about Chaplin.

So instead of quoting others here, I’d like to say a few words about why I selected this film. Modern Times may not be the best-constructed film Chaplin has done. Film critic Otis Ferguson said it had the feel of four two-reelers strung together, but the relationship between Charlie and the Gamin is the unifying thread throughout all these episodes. Paulette Goddard may have been his best leading lady because she and Charlie are very much equals in this film. Goddard was a former chorus girl whom Chaplin had put under contract. He would succeed in making her a star. In Modern Times, he photographs her as though she already is one. They had an eight-year personal and professional relationship, during which Paulette was a stabilizing force in his life. She would also appear in Chaplin’s first full-talking film, The Great Dictator, in 1940.

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Modern Times is visually the most polished of his films and benefits from the contribution of set designer Charles Danny Hall. Hall had done the sets for such films as Dracula and Frankenstein, and many others at Universal during the 1930s. There is a gloss to Modern Times, especially in the factory scenes. We have no idea what those machines do exactly besides provide great images of art deco futurism. Indeed, it is a factory of the future as though designed by Metropolis’ Rotwang, the inventor. (Makes you wonder what the Tramp would’ve done had he been turned loose in Metropolis.)

There is more location filming here than in Chaplin’s previous film, City Lights. It’s refreshing to see other scenes out in the country or near the waterfront. More atmosphere is evoked in seeing these places recorded on film. The waterfront shack that Charlie and Paulette call home is actually near a Ford motor plant, which you can see off in the distance. (Chaplin’s tour of the Ford assembly line in the 1920s was one of the memories that had shaped his vision of the film.)

Modern Times is a coda to both Chaplin’s career as the Little Tramp and to silent comedy. It’s a nostalgic summary of what defined him. There are moments throughout the film that recall his earliest days in two-reelers. His roller skating on the department store balcony, for example, reminds us of the physical comedy in his short film The Rink, made 20 years before. Modern Times is also cast with familiar character actors from his formative years, such as Chester Conklin, who plays the senior engineer who gets stuck in the machinery. Though only a couple years older than Chaplin, Conklin was a comic veteran whose career went back to the days of Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studio, which is where the two men had met. He worked with some of the greatest comedy artists, so it’s sad to learn that Conklin wound up as a department store Santa Claus in the mid-1950s.

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This film was made midway in Chaplin’s career, but I feel he never surpassed it. There are so many memorable sequences, such as the feeding machine (which Chaplin operated himself offscreen), and the scene at the café where we finally hear his voice. It’s the moment audiences have been waiting for. However, during this expressive song he uses an Italian-French gibberish. (A sly fellow that Charlot!) Even in the face of sound, the Little Tramp’s universal identity is preserved.

What followed in the second half of his career were films with darker themes that were more heavy-handed. Once Chaplin did finally speak, he couldn’t stop! But he was always at his best as a mime of the silent film language. If Chaplin had only made Modern Times he’d be recognized as a great comedian. As it is, tonight’s film remains a reminder of the golden silence that had come before. It encapsulates all the qualities that made Chaplin a master comedian.

The ending of the film is the perfect swan song not only to this phase of his career, but to the era of silent moviemaking. It’s the definitive road ending because Chaplin is, in essence, taking the tradition of silent film with him. It began with Chaplin, so how fitting is it that it should end with him. This was the last mainstream silent film from Hollywood’s glory days, and it is the final time we shall see The Little Tramp.
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