Original release: February 5th, 1936
Running time: 87 minutes
Writer and director: Charles Chaplin
Cast: Charles Chaplin, Paulette Goddard
It’s interesting to look back on Charlie Chaplin’s final silent film from the comfort of the twenty-first century. We normally consider these kinds of films as pushing the boundaries of what’s possible and inventing new forms of entertainment within limited means – especially when scrutinising the work of The Tramp. What makes Modern Times even more fascinating in this regard is that he was, himself, looking back at the era before the talkies.
Arriving on the big screen almost a decade after Al Jolson first uttered cinematic dialogue in The Jazz Singer (1927), Chaplin’s silent swansong is not a film incapable, or unaware, of the use of sound and does in fact boast the first synchronised soundtrack in the great comedian’s output. We’re treated to music and the voices of people when they come from radios or other transitions but any audible dialogue is teasingly restricted to these mediums leaving the audience to once again read the words from the title cards.
There’s no element of pastiche here though. One of the strengths of last year’s mega-hit The Artist was that it was a fully functioning silent film after the silent era; it nodded and winked to an audience for whom sound is the norm, but it didn’t look to poke fun at the medium it portrayed. Similarly, Modern Times is, if anything, a celebration of what had come before as well as – through the incorporation of technology both in production and the plot – looking forward. Naturally, the ability of technology to malfunction also plays a significant comedic role.
The film begins in a factory where our central character, A Factory Worker (Chaplin), is beavering away on a production line tightening bolts. This, and the spasmodic reverberating reactions of the protagonist, are used to ample comic effect before a man arrives pedalling a new machine which claims to feed the labour force without the need for a lunch break.
The machine works perfectly to begin with but is soon malfunctioning with hilarious consequences as Chaplin has food thrown all over him and the ever comic timing of the napkin to clean around his mouth regardless of what has just occurred – a motif used to great effect in Jon Favreau’s Iron Man (2008).
Through a veritable montage of misfortune – including becoming unwittingly embroiled in a workers strike – Chaplin ends up in the slammer surrounded on all sides by ne’er-do-wells of varying degrees. When an inmate hides narcotics in the salt cellar and our hero accidentally seasons his dinner with cocaine, his drug-fuelled escapades give the film one of its most memorable sequences as he foils an escape both inadvertently and defiantly. As he slams the final crooks head against the door, it is easy to imagine the roars and cheers from an enthralled audience.
It’s when he’s then released for his general good behaviour that A Factory Worker discovers that modern times without work aren’t easy – less easy in fact than a life in jail – and this is exemplified by a woman he meets and falls in love with (Paulette Goddard), a gamine. Together, in a rundown shack on the outskirts of town our young lovers attempt to set up a home together but with the law constantly hounding both of them and the difficulty in finding paid work, things aren’t easy.
Another quintessentially Chaplin sequence comes about when he gets a job working as the night-watchman for a department store. After hours he sneaks his beloved in with the hope that she will have somewhere warm and comfortable to sleep whilst he stands guard. It’s not a quiet night though as some old acquaintances of our protagonist choose that night to break into the department store and proceed to get very drunk ending with a swift P45 in the morning.
That isn’t before Chaplin gets to dazzle Goddard – and us – with some terrific stunt work as he roller-skates blindfolded around the second floor inching ever closer to an enormous hole which he seems destined to fall down.
As is ever the case, Charlie Chaplin is a master of beautifully executed visual gags and whilst his slapstick work never quite tickles me as much as Buster Keaton’s, Modern Times is full of memorable visuals that stand up alongside juggling the globe in The Great Dictator (1940), and that infamous trapdoor on the sidewalk.
It may not be his greatest work (although there’s an argument starter for you!) but it’s most certainly a great one. And you get to hear The Little Tramp sing a clearly raunchy, but patently gibberish little ditty to rapturous applause. Who could ask for more?
Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.
His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.