Modern Times – 1936
Director – Charles Chaplin
Starring – Charles Chaplin and Paulette Goddard
Not having seen much from the cannon of Mr. Chaplin, I only had the few clips I’d seen in film school, and the similarities of his peers (Keaton, Three Stooges, Fatty Arbuckle, The Marx Brothers, etc.) on which to form my initial impression of him. Modern Times marks my first opportunity to form an opinion based on work that I had actually seen from start to finish, and while the man clearly has vision, talent, and comedic range, it seems to me that the hype about Chaplin being the greatest performer of his generation may have given me some over-the-top expectations for him.
Please don’t get me wrong…I don’t mean to say that he is overrated, nor do I think his films are lacking any crucial element. I guess I just wouldn’t consider the tagline that I found in IMDb to accurately describe him…(“He stands alone as the greatest entertainer of modern times! No one on earth can make you laugh as heartily or touch your heart as deeply…the whole world laughs, cries and thrills to his priceless genius!”) This is high praise for a man who came out of the same time frame as the Marx Bros., and Buster Keaton, and to a new viewer it sets the bar very high.
The story is simple enough, Chaplin’s Little Tramp is trying to make his way through the world of burgeoning technology, and industry. He tries in vain to keep up at his assembly line job tightening bolts, managing to consistently cause problems for his co-workers, and bosses alike. After his disastrous run in with a new automated feeding machine, his bosses have reason to believe that he has gone a little mad, and they send him away to a mental hospital. Once he gets out, he runs into a series of problems with the police who alternately believe that he is a communist, a thief, and a troublemaker. When in custody, he meets a young woman who is also struggling to survive in the modern world. Together they attempt to create a little place for themselves in the world.
I thought that the film’s set-pieces were it’s greatest strength, allowing Chaplin to really explore the ridiculous nature of the crazy mechanized world, the nature of and need for infrastructure, and the simplicity inherent in it all. It is very clear that Chaplin’s films (along with those of Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and the Marx Brothers) with their wide variety of visual appeal combined with storytelling and heart went a long way in inspiring a whole crop of successful visual filmmakers such as Jacques Tati, Terry Gilliam, and I’d even guess Peter Jackson. The intimate nature of the Tramp’s interaction with his physical surroundings speaks volumes about his curiosity, resilience, and compassion. Chaplin must have firmly believed that it wasn’t the fancy machinery that made modern living great, but it was instead it was the strong connections possible because of these innovations.
Modern Times was Chaplin’s last silent feature, and it was only sort-of silent. It is filled with sound-effects, some voice acting, and lots of music. It a time when most of the industry had already converted over to the “new” talkie format, I wonder if Modern Times was itself a commentary on the nature of change in his own industry?
Despite the fact that it may have been a bit over hyped for me, I still really enjoyed what Chaplin had to offer in Modern Times, and I look forward to seeing more of his work (this time with a bit more moderate expectations).