Catching Up with the Classics: MODERN TIMES (1936)

Chaplin further proves his reputation as classic comedy’s jack-of-all-trades with his first sound film

Film 56 of 115: MODERN TIMES (1936)
I’m grateful to this project for turning me around to Charlie Chaplin. I’m not the biggest fan of his earlier movies, where the laughs are plentiful but the stories are frustratingly thin and forgettable. The Kid and its marriage of The Tramp’s wily misadventures with the perils of assumed parenthood makes it Chaplin’s best silent-era flick, but The Great Dictator was where Chaplin finally clicked with me. What was so satisfying about Dictator was how the film’s comedy was gut-bustlingly hilarious while being starkly mature. Chaplin tackled one of the greatest evils in the world; exposing Hitler’s inherent absurdity gave us the resolve to tackle his atrocities as well as search for a nonviolent path to peace. In both films, Chaplin elevated his pantomime with pathos and a persevering spirit. Modern Times feels like the missing link between these two parts of Chaplin’s career–not just between silent and sound cinema, but between vaudevillian sight-gags and resonant, socially-conscious comedy.

The film follows Chaplin’s Tramp as he navigates the “modern world,” one full of labor-intensive, cog-driven factories and chaotic streets full of impoverished, striking workers. Earning the friendship and eventually love of courageous, streetwise Ellen (Paulette Goddard), the pair flit in and out of jobs and prisons trying to earn enough for a home of their own. Each of the film’s raucous setups are born from this central place of crucial need — to work, to eat, to belong — that the viewer isn’t just laughing, but locked into the plight of the two leads. Each setpiece also exposes a new height of modern absurdity, the standouts being in any of Modern Times’ factory settings. From being strapped into a three-course force-feeding machine being tested to eliminate the lunch hour, to being swallowed up and spat out by a cartoonish labyrinth of gears, The Tramp earns his hilarity by being as much of a straight man to this bizarre world as he is a victim of it.

All of this to say that in any other director’s hands, Modern Times would be a tearjerker. It deals with loss, injustice, and poverty, among other heady topics. On the other hand, it’s still a comedy — and if that element’s played up too much, directors risk alienating those in the audience going through the same difficult situations. But Chaplin doesn’t just solely show us what’s hilarious about the world, nor does he dwell too long on what makes it cruel; in both cases he puts his own character on the line to prove these points. He doesn’t make anyone the butt of any cruel joke but himself–a trademark of other Tramp films, to be sure, but in Modern Times such a hallmark is key to keeping this narrative balance, and encouraging the audience to find the brightest spots in being at rock bottom.

The film’s greatest strength isn’t just Charlie Chaplin’s talents as writer, director, and actor, but in Paulette Goddard’s talents as an actress. She brings such a vivacity to Ellen from frame one, her eyes wild with intensity as she steals food for a ragtag group of orphans. Over the course of the film, Goddard frequently nearly upstages Chaplin — but the two play so well off of each other it causes their solo scenes to suffer in each other’s absence. It’s the kind of dynamic relationship that, aside from The Kid, seems to be missing from much of Chaplin’s films. Ellen isn’t just a figure for The Tramp to pursue, nor does her suffering define her. She’s a character who fights for her own well being as much as she can, one that takes control of her story without waiting for The Tramp or others to step in for her.

I was also eager to see how Chaplin would cross the sound barrier for Modern Times, given that it was his last “silent” film before sticking to sound films with The Great Dictator and others. And it feels like a film wholly conscious of being out of place or out of touch with these growing trends — whenever characters speak, it’s via radio, records, or screens, filtered via technology but sticking to silent film pantomime when interacting in person. It’s as if there’s a preference or compulsion to express oneself in body language and action despite the existence of voice-giving technology. Even when it comes time for The Tramp to finally sing, a climactic moment even outside of the context of the film, his song is a mishmash of French, Spanish, and Italian nonsense — preserving The Tramp’s language-transcending universality.

With Modern Times’ wondrous balancing act of comedy, tragedy, sound, and silence, Chaplin proves himself to be as skillful of an artist behind the camera as he is in front of it. It’s a film that feels like a goodbye to an era of filmmaking, embracing the inevitable arrival of sound technology while still making light of its arrival. It’s complex, moving…and just a ton of fun.

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