On Chaplin’s “Modern Times”

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Today is the anniversary of the U.S. (and world) premiere of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. Released in 1936, it is widely regarded as the last of the silent films, made nearly a decade since The Jazz Singer had made talkies popular with audiences, and five years since the release of the previous “last silent film,” Chaplin’s own City Lights. 

In fact, Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times is largely about that conflict, about a man who is striving to maintain natural human rhythms and proportions in a world that has become regimented and automated. How is his old-fashioned character going to fit into this modern world? How does the anachronistic silent man fit in a sound universe? The film seems like a statement about the question whether Chaplin himself is relevant any more.

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Modern Times reflects Chaplin’s two decades-long flirtation with leftist politics in its criticism of a society that values profits before people. Set in an Orwellian near-future dystopia, the film introduces him as an assembly line worker in a factory full of Keatonesque gadgets. Constantly exhorted to speed up, he has a nervous breakdown, a sort of repetitive motion psychosis. He spends the bulk of the rest of the film unemployed, in jail, or struggling to keep up in dehumanizing jobs. To keep it balanced, there are a couple of episodes in which he suffers on account of labor unrest and strikes as well, implying that his real target is any larger system that diminishes the individual. There really is no more plot to it than that.

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His co-star in the film was his then-girlfriend, the lovely Paulette Goddard, as the “Gamine,” a sort of cross between The Kid and Chaplin’s heroines of the Purviance era. Feisty and full of the grit of self-preservation, the role might well have been perfect for Mabel Normand during her Mickey period. Goddard is terrific as the resourceful urchin; one of the very few times Chaplin allows himself a leading lady who can match his charisma on the screen.

As Chaplin had said many times and in many ways “we think too much and feel too little.” To the extent that he is an artist who proceeds by instinct and feeling, his satires are thankfully prevented from being straight-up agit-prop for this cause or that. There appears to be much confusion in his head but his work is better because of it. For example, throughout most of the film we are presented with a Dickensian vision of industrialization’s victims, with our heroes suffering from hunger and privation due to their constant unemployment, a problem associated with laissez-faire capitalism. Yet the factory scenes he presents give us a vision much more like the Soviet Union, the visual fetishization of sprockets, gears, and assembly lines, and the constant supervision of Big Brother on a video screen (which was at the time pure science-fiction). In the end he seems to say, along with Emerson, “How shall I live? We are incompetent to solve the times.”

As Modern Times remains one of Chaplin’s most popular films, I feel I scarcely need to recount the humor he mines from the film’s bleak setup: The image of the Little Fellow trapped within the machinery gears ranks with Harold Lloyd dangling from the clock as one of the most widely known images from silent comedy. The nervous breakdown, which starts as a twitchy inability to stop tightening bolts (or things that look like bolts), and culminates in the last of his great Pan dances. The scene where he becomes the test subject for a malfunctioning self-feeding machine (which will allow people to work without stopping for lunch). And the scene where he pays the system back by trapping Chester Conklin in the middle of a large manufacturing device and has to feed his defenseless face during their five-minute break. The repeated comic premise of the Little Fellow trying to get INTO jail strictly for the food and shelter. His arrest for accidentally seeming to lead a communist demonstration (the red traffic flag he is holding doesn’t help). And his single-handed quelling of a prison riot, enabled solely by the Little Fellow’s inadvertent ingestion of a large amount of contraband cocaine (yes, that’s in there!).

To sweeten the pot, he composed one of his most memorable scores for the film, including the hit song “Smile,” and introduced his first scraps of spoken dialogue. Cleverly, he has most of the talk come out of devices. The stern admonitions of the omnipresent boss-head on video screens. A radio in the prison. And then his very own, much-anticipated first words, which he coyly gives to us as gibberish in the form of a song to which he has forgotten the lyrics.

Modern Times was and remains one of Chaplin’s great blockbusters.  Chaplin’s Tramp had suddenly gained new symbolic relevance during the Depression. In 1923, the U.S. unemployment rate had been 3.3%. At that time, the Tramp had been merely an amusing “other.” By 1933, unemployment had hit 23.2%. A quarter of the audience (if they could afford a dime for the movies) was out of work and suddenly—terrifyingly—the Tramp was someone they could relate to.

For more on Charlie Chaplin see my full post here. 

For more on silent and slapstick film history don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. For more on show business historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

 

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2 comments

  1. I love the Mutual shorts, but Modern Times is my favorite Chaplin feature. The gibberish patter dong & dance he performs is a superb example of old-time English Music Hall turn. No other CC bit pleases me as much.

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    • I love that routine so much too Frank. It puts a chill up my spine every time. I’ll never forget how I felt the first time I saw it (it was the first time I had heard his voice)

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