US (1936) Dir. Charlie Chaplin
This would be the last “silent” film from Chaplin – the quotes are necessary as it features some dialogue, sound effects and even Chaplin singing – making the title ironic in lieu of the narrative that explores the themes of the cost of one’s humanity in a fast moving and mechanically evolving world.
In his last appearance as The Tramp, Chaplin plays a factory worker unable to keep up with the demands of the technological age, driven to a nervous breakdown by the pressures of a high-speed production line system. After leaving hospital The Tramp is mistaken for the leader of a Communists rally (to prove ironically prescient later in Chaplin’s life) and is thrown in jail.
The Tramp ends up behind bars a lot in this film, largely through no fault of his own except for when he takes the rap for a poor girl, Ellen (Paulette Goddard), arrested for stealing bread to feed her family. Ellen is grateful to The Tramp and when he is released, the pair go in search of work together.
Prior to Modern Times Chaplin always insisted his films had no message and were solely entertainment but this time, such a denial could not be made. The fact it was a silent film almost a decade after sound had first appeared in cinema was as much a statement as the topic itself as mentioned earlier, and whilst the story proffers another clash between the “haves” and the “have nots” in modern society the satire is palpably savage.
Straight away, Chaplin indicates this with the factory boss (Al Ernest Garcia) barking his orders of “Work harder” from his cosy office via a large video screen. For our hero, the constant repetition of tightening screws onto a metal plate gives him a physical tic as the machine speeds increase to a ridiculous rate. Chapin is clearly reminding us that man cannot compete with man while efficiency is an equally prevalent human trait, although again the timing of these one shot scenes is remarkable and superbly executed.
The most incisive dig arrives via a feeding machine which is designed to remove the physicality of eating, with naturally disastrous results. Clever in its construction for comedy’s sake we can at least breathe a sigh of relief that this was one farfetched moment of ridicule that didn’t inspire a real life imitation.
It is The Tramp’s eventual mental breakdown and subsequent rampage around the factory that remains memorable for most fans. As much as Chaplin’s wild slapstick stunt work is the focus, it is the sight of him stuck inside the giant machine that remains its most vivid feature, just one part of an impressive full scale set of cogs, machines, chains and levers, recalling the futuristic work place in Fritz Lang’s seminal Metropolis, that closes this part.
A similar set piece appears in a later skit, when The Tramp gets a job as a mechanic’s assistant to another silent stalwart Chester Conklin, but for the remainder of the film most of the production values are kept simple. The script however is as daring as ever and Chaplin somehow escaped censure by the oppressive Hayes Code for his use of cocaine during the prison scene.
Named only as “nose powder” in the intertitles, The Tramp accidentally ingests Columbia’s famous export when an inmate hides his stash in a salt cellar. Considering how taboo this subject was it is a wonder we got to see Chaplin turn into a whirling dervish, his eyes wild, his actions frenetic and paranoid. One can only assume that since it was for comic intent it was deemed harmless but for the time it was a hugely progressive and bold move.
Meanwhile Ellen is stealing food to feed her family made up of two younger sisters (one of them Gloria DeHaven) and her unemployed father (Stanley Blystone), who is later shot and killed during a protest against lack of jobs. The girls are then taken into custody but Ellen runs away – the younger sisters are never seen again which is a huge plot hole considering Ellen’s devotion to them, soon forgotten when she teams up with The Tramp.
Similar to The Kid, Chaplin pours scorn on how society look down on the poor and how they are deemed criminals for trying to survive through desperate measures. From official interference (a key part in the film’s denouement) to the affront by the rich The Tramp’s affinity with Ellen’s plight and his unconditional sacrifice is a screaming indictment of the world’s endemic snobbery.
Ellen was Paulette Goddard’s first major role. It may have been afforded to her by being Chaplin’s girlfriend (and later wife no 3), but in fact she is one of the most captivating elements of the entire film. Despite being impoverished, Goddard imbues Ellen with a sense of grace and spirit and certainly doesn’t need a man to fight her battles. If anything she is more the catalyst for HIS good fortune than the other way round.
This is film which can be dissected segment by segment but by the same token one needs to see it as a whole to fully appreciate and understand it. Surprisingly it wasn’t a success in the US, presumably the silent format was seen as outdated but it fared better in Europe. Admittedly the sight of Chaplin aged 47 still doing the same old tramp routine twenty years after its debut feels anachronistic but the scale and physicality of the gags – the roller skating sequence is jaw droppingly tense even to this day – and the trenchant nature of the script excuse this and make it a timeless work.
In all honesty Modern Times could have been made in any decade after the 1920’s as we are continually beholden to and replaced by technological advances. As simple and primitive as this film may look now it is in fact a frighteningly prophetic – but superbly enjoyable – parable.