Sunday, May 22, 2011

Modern Times (1936)

The lovely Somerville Theatre had a Charlie Chaplin theme going last weekend, so of course I headed out to see Modern Times on the big screen! The gear-filled poster art had always intrigued me, but this was actually my first time seeing it.

Part topical satire, part Depression-era drama, the films stars Chaplin as his lovable Tramp character. This time around he's working at an unspecified factory, where the repetition wreaks havoc on his motor functions. He is then taken as a test subject for an abusive feeding machine, goes insane, goes to jail, and learns upon release that the factory has closed down along with so many others and he is now homeless and unemployed. He takes up with a wild-eyed gamine (Paulette Goddard) and the two forge a handy partnership: He gets jobs and quickly loses them, while she steadily improves their situation through sheer force of will. They play house for a while (not the sexy kind, sadly), there's more jail time, then suddenly it's a musical.

Between the star's consistently impressive antics, well-placed sound effects, and some innovative set pieces, this film is unsurprisingly hilarious. There are pratfalls, misunderstandings, mix-ups, funny faces, near-death experiences, drunken shenanigans, tummy rumbles, and even a very silly bit involving misplaced cocaine (or, "nosepowder"). Many of Chaplin's gags seem so simple, while others are incredibly complex, but all of them contain an easygoing charm that provokes a classic response. There's no awkward silences or poop jokes (mostly) or sarcasm, it's just funny.

The Tramp is primarily the centerpiece- we even hear his voice for the first time in an all-encompassing nonsense language, highlighting his abilities to communicate through action and expression instead of speech. Paulette Goddard gives a shining supporting performance as his newfound friend, a slightly wild woman who's lost her home and family but is determined to keep fighting to survive. Her intense eyes and enthusiastic movements capture a certain desperation, but she is never pitiable. I found her character more admirable and more interesting than the somewhat passive blind girl in City Lights.

Feelings at times more a series of loosely connected shorts than a complete, over-arching narrative, Modern Times is Chaplin's winking ode to "progress", replete with Metropolis-levels of lever-based machinery, wacky gadgets, and oh so many gears. He chose to make it silent despite early plans for a talkie, and maintains speaking segments for anything machine-based (radios, intercom systems, phonographs, etc). This sly nod to contemporary filmmaking alongside a staunch refusal to conform to it represents the director's last contribution to the silent film genre, and indeed is counted by historians as the last feature of the silent era. On one level a goofy, episodic comedy and on another a brutally realistic portrayal of Depression living, Modern Times seeks to entertain without sugarcoating, offering slapstick with edge and social commentary with heart.


Pair This Movie With: The aforementioned Metropolis would be a nice sci-fi pairing, given its complex machine imagery and insights into workers' rights. If you're aiming to move out of the silent era, though, I'd go with something like How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, another workplace comedy/romance, but this time showing the office side of things. And there's less Depression so it's more upbeat.


  1. "Many of Chaplin's gags seem so simple, while others are incredibly complex, but all them contain an easygoing charm that provokes a classic response." Touche.

    Modern Times ranks as one of my favourite Chaplin movies; hell, it ranks as one of my favourite movies... period. Great that you got to experience this Chaplin masterpiece in big screen.

    Personally, I would have given half a star more to this unforgettable movie. :)

  2. Shubhajit: Yes I'm so grateful I could see this in a theatre, though it was under-attended, sadly. I almost never give a 5/5 on a first viewing, so maybe once I see it again I'll bump it up!

  3. I wrote about this a couple of months ago (though I was not as fortunate to have seen this on the big screen as you) and one thing among many that impressed me about it was how it seemed to morph from one thing to another: one minute it's a satirical comedy, next it's a dystopian sci-fi, then it's a love story, then it's a musical. It's got a little bit of everything and yet Chaplin somehow makes it all hold together.

  4. Fantastic review! This is one of Chaplin's masterpieces that is charmingly funny and more complex than it appears. Glad you loved it.

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  5. Nice review. I think the film was en excellent satire of it's age but still has relevance today. I have never read anyone talk about the film feeling like loosley connected shorts but can understand what you mean. For me this isn't Chaplin's best but it's certainly very close to the top.