Review of The Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition. Modern Times d. Charles Chaplin (1936) Spine: #543 Blu-ray Release Date: November 16, 2010 Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc, but resolution has been reduced from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed. You may click on them to view the 900x506 image.
In 1931, when Chaplin released City Lights as a silent feature, people questioned his judgment. The age of sound had begun. But a half decade later, when people heard his next feature would also be silent (mostly), they really thought he’d lost his mind, and not just because they felt it made no financial sense (because who wants to see a silent feature?) but also because it looked like Chaplin had completely lost touch. He looked retrogressive, at best. From Taschen’s great new book The Chaplin Archives (reviewed here) we get this statement from Charlie Chaplin, Jr., about this time in his father’s life:
Everyone in Hollywood thought my father was crazy. Dad was stubbornly clinging to the passé era of silent film. People began to think of him somewhat patronizingly as a former Hollywood great who was now a has-been, unable to adjust himself to the new techniques. He was finished in pictures — you heard that all over town.
But Modern Times, which was not entirely modern, didn’t need to be talkie to become today Chaplin’s most famous film, an indisputable masterpiece. It is sophisticated in its humor, criticism, and heart. Furthermore, pantomime, that vestige from the receding past, ended up emphasizing beautifully the film’s major theme: the swiftly encroaching dehumanizing modern world. That this is also Chaplin’s last film to feature The Tramp also memorializes the last few breaths of that recent era at a time when, for many reasons, the world appeared less and less like a place that could harbor the human heart that always beat loudly when The Tramp was on the screen.
Modern Times begins famously with a shot of a herd of sheep squished closely together as the sheep are moved by momentum down the screen, presumably to some kind of slaughter. The shot fades into a herd of men rushing to the factories to work. It’s not Chaplin’s most subtle moment, by a long shot, but it sets the tone perfectly. While we’ll be laughing at the foibles of the Tramp, we should not forget that this world of factories and machines is not only comical but also inhospitable.
According to Harry Crocker, Chaplin’s personal assistant until 1930 when they had a falling out during the filming of City Lights, Charlie Chaplin’s resentment for the corporate ethos that prided itself on efficiency over human values really took off when Chaplin visited the Ford factory in Detroit in 1923. A little over a decade later, and in the midst of the Great Depression, Chaplin released this poignant mixture of comedy and heart to explore that beautiful strain of humanity that exists — though perpetually under threat — amidst the inhuman cogs, board meetings, and corporate overlordship of the modern age.
The Tramp is one of the individuals of this time who is blessed to at least have a job, but we quickly see that that blessing is of dubious value. He’s working on a conveyor belt carrying bolted plates of metal down the line. His job is to give the two bolts a quarter turn or so. The next two people pop the tops of the bolts with a hammer. By forcing its workers to do that one mindless task for hours at a time, the company is more efficient and makes more money.
Since efficiency is the buzzword, there are naturally other businessmen out to capitalize on that, in this case going to the ridiculous extreme of creating a machine that will feed the worker while the workers stays on the conveyor belt. Ridiculous, yes. Far-fetched? Not necessarily, which allows Chaplin’s comedy to work in layers, surprising us at how crazy it is and striking us with how close it may be to reality. Certainly the mentality that would create this machine exists all over the place. Why doesn’t it exist? Probably for the very reason Chaplin’s boss declines to purchase the machine: it isn’t practical.
The Tramp’s work on the assembly line eventually leads him to a nervous breakdown. Though comical — my kids and I love this part of the movie — it is, again, sadly realistic. We cannot forget those sheep from the first scene of the film.
If we say, “At least the Tramp had a job,” we must remember it ushered him to the mental hospital and was, in the first place, one he was driven to by desperation. Still, we soon meet someone who is a few more rungs down the ladder with no job and almost no hope: the poor Ellen, played by Paulette Goddard, who over the course of production became Chaplin’s love interest, though twenty-one years his junior. She’s out stealing food for children and herself.
Brought together by a few run-ins with the law and soon by their own dreams of a home together, the Tramp and Ellen looks for ways to bring themselves even one step closer to this destiny, usually only to be knocked back a couple of steps.
Chaplin himself was extremely poor when he was younger, and he never saw anything noble in his ascent from poverty. Rather, as he said, “there is no virtue in rising from poverty, only the pity and waste of energy it involves.” It doesn’t surprise us, then, when the film ends while the protagonists continue their struggle, with no real prospects for advancements. Yet despite making its premise out of terrifying social problems, Modern Times maintains the heart that bolsters the Tramp’s audiences. The melancholic hopeful song “Smile” was composed for this film, by Chaplin himself, and it serves to remind us of the touching wealth of humanity that struggles in this world every day the sun comes up.
That’s the last we see of the Tramp. Though he sings a gibberish song, the Tramp never speaks in Modern Times. Chaplin said he’d never talk as the Tramp, knowing “[i]f I talk in a picture, it will be a totally different kind of character.” Though Modern Times would become a classic, Chaplin had to confront the “melancholy problems” in from of him, wondering where his filmmaking career would go next, even if it should go anywhere next. Fortunately, he did not throw in the towel and we’ve got more films to cover here. Sadly, though, the world was no longer a place for the Tramp.