Modern Times - 1936
Director(s): Charlie Chaplin
Writer(s): Charlie Chaplin
Cinematography by: Ira H. Morgan and Roland Totheroh
Editor(s): Charlie Chaplin and Willard Nico
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman, Tiny Sandford, Chester Conkin and Hank Mann
There are very few singular voices in Hollywood's history, such as Charlie Chaplin. Best known for his onscreen persona of "The Tramp," Chaplin was also a writer, producer, composer, editor, stunt-man, and director for practically all his films. While it is unfair to the rest of the silent film era stars, Chaplin, to many, is the face of said era, with very few contemporaries outside of Buster Keaton. However, it is fair to say that Chaplin had the same apprehension towards "talkies" as the rest of the stars that made their name during the silent era. Chaplin was very concerned that his physical humor would not translate in this new world of sound. Luckily, he overcame his fears and embraced sound, melding it with the elements that made him a star, and elevating the medium by using audio in creative ways, giving us what many call his masterpiece; 1936's Modern Times.
The story follows the Tramp (Chaplin), a factory worker that suffers a mental breakdown from being overworked in the assembly line. When he gets out of the hospital, he finds himself unemployed, as the workers have gone on strike and the depression has hit his town. Walking through town, he stumbles upon a strike rally and is taken to jail, as he is mistaken for the leader. During his time in prison, he stops a jailbreak and is rewarded with his freedom, despite him wanting to stay inside since he had a bed and food - something he did not have outside. Once free, he meets and falls in love with a recently orphaned barefoot girl, Ellen (Goddard). The Tramp wants to give her the home and life she deserves, so he sets out to make money required for the "dream life." Landing jobs as night security, factory worker, and singing waiter - all of them leading to complex sequences that end with him losing said jobs.
There is a certain sense of hope and wonder injected in every Chaplin film thanks to his comedic sensibilities, and world view - and Modern Times is no exemption. Despite the film being a witty commentary on the Great Depression, showcasing the poverty of the time, and the corporation's reliance on technology, you cannot help to smile along the way - even when The Tramp is at rock bottom. This sense of hope is highlighted by the ending, as the couple walks hand in hand towards the sunset looking for their happy ending - the one that has been snatched away by the changing times. It beautifully mirrors Chaplin and his Tramp, since this would be the last time he would portray his famed character - literally giving him his final moment in the sun.
Something I love about this script is that despite it having a clear through line it works as short films, as all the hijinks get himself in have a clear beginning and end, that you can upload them separately and they stand on their own. The creativity behind the set pieces boggles the mind, as only a master of his craft could conjure up how each comedic beat flowed to the next. His mastery of pantomiming is matched by none, and overcomes the need for dialogue, despite this film coming out years after the wave of talkies taking over Hollywood. Chaplin used his supporting cast for minimal dialogue, elevated his physical humor through well-timed sound effects and used his score to the fullest. The singing waiter scene probably being the most famous sequence out of this film, the audience finally gets to hear The Tramps' "voice" as he sings gibberish and pantomiming the meaning behind each lyric, that had the restaurant and myself laughing from beginning to end.
Modern Times is Charlie Chaplin at his best, and the fact that it is so critically praised (then and now) despite it coming during a time where audiences were enamored with talkies, only adds to the mystique of this film. It serves as both a sendoff to the silent era, and a bittersweet goodbye to the seminal-character of The Tramp. If you have not yet watched a silent film, and you are looking for your perfect introduction to the era, you cannot ask for a better movie to start with, and a better star to guide you.
Modern Times is Why I Love Movies.
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