Modern Times
Director
Cast
, , ,
Rated
Unrated
Runtime
87 min.
Release Date
02/06/1936
Modern Times

Asymmetrical in form, his derby hat rests upon his head at an angle, its slant accentuated by the straightness of his suspenders and the forced lines of his tight buttoned coat. Air fluffs his baggy pants, which seem to tighten like a balloon knot at his ankles, where his oversized shoes oblige his feet to point outward, causing him to waddle when he walks. Balancing himself, he carries a bamboo cane that retains his posture. Looking as though the once sweet life passed him by, his garb is tattered and his eyes dark, but his mustache is short and trimmed, and his demeanor is always gentlemanly. And yet, his good manners are married with a liberated sense of freedom and severance, displacing him as an outsider reliant only on his most human instincts. His appearance reflects this station, giving him an uneven silhouette, albeit immediately familiar and identifiable. This is the Tramp. This is Charles Chaplin. More than an iconographic image of early cinema magic, more than a comedic pantomime or sentimentalist director, Charlie Chaplin provoked thought with his tender comedies. His ingenious 1934 picture Modern Times confirms this by illustrating how the human condition drops in the wake of industry and technological advancement. His foreword: “Modern Times.” A story of industry, of individual enterprise—humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness. Chaplin suggests the common man must not only fight for contentment, but in an industrial era combat against burgeoning commerce progressing each moment beyond the need for individuals.

His message is conveyed through the universal rhetoric of comedy; invasive commentary is left on the wayside, which in turn causes some critics to argue that Chaplin does not live up to his foreword’s promise. He satires the effects of industry according to how it fails humanist concerns. This is accomplished through a series of the Tramp’s adventures that in themselves could be whole two-reelers. Indeed, the film is episodic, taking the Tramp from place to place while maintaining a unifying theme of survival in the industrial, post-Depression world. To claim the picture lacks the emotional structure of Chaplin’s clear comedic melodramas (City Lights, The Kid, Limelight), however, is an error. Accompanying our hero the Tramp is the “Gamin” played by the delightful actress Paulette Goddard, Chaplin’s lover for a number of years until 1940. Gamin being the masculine French noun for mischievous or playful street urchin, Chaplin would later correct is error and note he should have called her gamine, the feminine form. Nevertheless, Goddard plays her as the perfect accompaniment to the established Tramp. Her first scene involves Robin Hood-type bravery while stealing bananas for poor children, then bringing them home to her family which is broken apart by social services. She too becomes a vagabond, eventually finding a kindred, living spirit in the Tramp. Together the two are what Chaplin called “two playmates—partners in crime, comrades, babes in the woods.”

Chaplin’s “woods” emerge just after the opening credits when he cuts to an image of marching sheep that fades into workers pouring off a subway terminal and into a factory. Centered amid the white sheep is a single black one moving along with the crowd, a clear reference to the Tramp. Cut to inside the factory where we see Chaplin, his black hair and short mustache immediately familiar, turning bolts on a conveyor belt. He struggles to keep up, moving up and down the line much to the chagrin of those succeeding him. A wrench in each hand, he twists two bolts at once on the assembly line, over and over and over, and so on in an endless rhythm. Lunch is called and the belt stops, but the Tramp keeps twitching on pace uncontrollably, the after-effects of repetitious industrial labor infused in his motions. Meanwhile, the Tramp is chosen as the guinea pig for a new experiment, dubbed “The Billows Feeding Machine”—a state-of-the-art apparatus allowing workers to eat without a break, thus maximizing production. He stands before a mechanized Lazy Susan fit with gizmos that serve food direct into its subject’s mouth. Squares of meat are pushed by automated appendages; an ear of corn spins on a rotator; a bowl of soup is gently lifted for sipping; between courses a pad wipes the face clean. Behind the scenes, Chaplin operated these devices himself, his hands at work just off camera below. And so, of course, the machine malfunctions with the Tramp locked-in for a series of punishing mishaps including soup in the face, force-fed bolts, and a violent cleaning.

Chaplin believed machinery should benefit humanity, not remove humanity from the individual. When he retuned to Hollywood after a yearlong hiatus in 1932, he was taken aback by the “tyranny of the machine” and the dwindled economic status of Depression-era America. He blamed those who constructed machines for solely profit-making purposes rather than improving the lives of ordinary citizens. Chaplin would write, “Something is wrong. Things have been badly managed when five million men are out of work in the richest country in the world.” Chaplin questioned massive factories producing a cheaper product faster when the process drives workers to the unemployment office; should this happen, no one would be able to afford the consumer products being built. Since it was not a specific company (an obvious choice like Ford Motors) Chaplin sought to scrutinize, he avoids labeling the factory in his film. We learn neither the company’s name nor what they manufacture, as Chaplin’s concerns are transcendent of time and very much applicable to today’s capitalist system.

Despite the appearance of his commentary, Modern Times is not a message film about Chaplin’s contemporary economy, rather an exercise in human emotions where the setting reflects the changing world. “The question is not whether the country is wet or dry,” Chaplin wrote, “but whether the country is starved or fed.” His concerns are humanity and its existence within a world where middle-class citizens are dehumanized by the surrounding industrialization. This is never more delightfully spelled-out than when the Tramp, having been driven mad by the monotony of tightening bolts, leaps into a port where his body moves effortlessly among the clockwork of gears inside. His body bending to fit every curvature, he becomes a cog in the wheels of industry. When he emerges again on the factory floor, his madness sends him into a whimsical frolic, spraying oil in workers’ faces, twisting his wrenches on everything in sight that resembles a bolt. Outside the factory, the Tramp spots a woman with notably large breasts punctuated by bolt-like buttons. He chases after her with a wild glint in his eye; already the gag has fulfilled itself without carrying out with the suggested action.

Chaplin’s critics at the time saw the film as communistic as opposed to humanistic, the latter being the director’s true intention. Key scenes are misread as serious commentary versus comedic folly: The Tramp is institutionalized for his on-the-job breakdown and released shortly thereafter with a clean bill of mental health. Back on the street, he sees a rear distance flag fall off a truck; he picks it up and chases after, waving the flag to get the driver’s attention. Around the corner behind him, a communist rally turns marching down the street, giving the impression that the Tramp leads the Red procession. Chaplin seems to be preemptively saying not to misconstrue Modern Times as a statement, which ironically is exactly what his critics thought, among them J. Edgar Hoover. The Tramp is caught and thrown in jail for his assumed demonstration, whereas off camera Chaplin’s political reputation would remain under an increasingly hot spotlight.

Chaplin left the United States in 1952 after enduring years of persecution for his freethinking, free-voiced opinion toward non-humanist capitalists and politicians. His remaining years were spent at his home in Switzerland. An article in the April 1953 issue of Time wrote the following: Charlie Chaplin, British subject, surrendered his U.S. re-entry permit in Geneva and flew off to London. Chaplin had made his decision. The U.S. Immigration authorities had warned him that he would be subject to a screening exam, just as any other alien, when he returned. In his London hotel room he wrote his valedictory after 40 years of U.S. residence: “. . . Since the end of the last world war, I have been the object of lies and propaganda by powerful reactionary groups who, by their influence and by the aid of America’s yellow press, have created an unhealthy atmosphere in which liberal-minded individuals can be singled out and persecuted. Under these conditions I find it virtually impossible to continue my motion-picture work, and I have therefore given up my residence in the United States.”

How strange that Modern Times and Chaplin’s own political voice was later met with harsh disapproval, as his hopes were based largely in basic human needs and desire. Growing up in poverty, the need for food and the daily reality of hunger is a common theme in Chaplin films. After the Tramp earns a release from prison for thwarting an escape, he refuses to leave since it affords him free shelter and three meals a day. Outside the unemployed starve. Forced out, upon his release he happily buys an exorbitantly large meal with no intention of paying, only so he can get back into prison. Later still, back again on the outside, the Tramp gets a job as a night watchman. Burglars arrive not to ransack the store, but to feed themselves. “We ain’t burglars—we’re hungry.” Indeed, even his daydreams seem preoccupied with food; his fantasy home includes a fruit tree at the window and a milk-producing cow that comes when called.

Chaplin resolves that humanity survives by human interaction, not through the application of technology. Easily read by the presence of the Gamine, Chaplin tells a story of people getting by on their own. The Tramp and Gamine are like children, free of responsibility, while adults remain mindless and controlled automatons. Theirs is not a romantic bond; when they find a run-down shack for a home, the Tramp sleeps in a small attached barn while Gamine sleeps inside the main home. Living together is more like children playing “house”. When they kiss, they are bonds of deep friendship and togetherness. And where most Chaplin pictures conclude with the Tramp facing the world alone, always getting by on his own esteem, in the end of Modern Times he gets by with her. For the first and last time in the Tramp’s onscreen life, in the end, he is not alone.

Released by United Artists, which Chaplin originated along with Douglas Fairbanks, D. W. Griffith, and Mary Pickford in 1919, the film’s production resisted an all-out committal to sound largely from Chaplin’s certainty and success within the voiceless theatricality of silent-era pictures. Well after the major studios had opted for sound, Chaplin released City Lights in 1931, earning rave reviews and box-office. Chaplin long-believed music provided background effects, while emotion was supplied via pantomime. Dialogue was not necessary, and would slow his process, thus hinder the film’s comedic effect. In interviews, he predicted sound pictures would last no more than a year; and a year later when they did not disappear, he insisted that if talkies were to last, it would not be in his own pictures. During a five-year filmmaking hiatus, Chaplin fought with the reality that his pictures were no longer how films were made. And by the time production began on Modern Times in 1933, Chaplin had written a full script complete with dialogue, if only to keep up with his title’s setting.

Chaplin initially set out to make his first talkie, since most of his Hollywood contemporaries had made the leap years before. But had he followed through with his chatty script, Modern Times would not be the same film; it would fail by hypocrisy. Luckily, perhaps fearing modernization like the Tramp in his film, Chaplin resisted full-fledged sound and instead relied on the synchronization of certain sound effects and voices. Where dialogue is spelled out through infrequent title cards, car horns, buzzers, stomach grumblings, and the bong of heads on a metal door are each audible. The factory owner is seen speaking on a video screen, whistles blow, gadgets grind, and when the salesman (“Your Speaker: The Mechanical Salesman”) arrives on the floor to demonstrate the aforementioned feeding machine, rather than prattle the pitch himself, he humorously plays the spiel on a phonograph. Modern Times critiques those that would so unreservedly jump into the new sound form.

The listed sound effects are impersonal, communicated through filters, or altogether gibberish. The factory president who spends his time putting together puzzles in his office, for example, occasionally turns to his monitor and barks an order; we never see him actually speak in person, only on his screen, his head blown up to a massively authoritarian size. In the last hurrah, Chaplin finally lets his audience hear the Tramp’s voice in a lovely take on the French tune “Titine” sung at a posh soiree where the Tramp has secured a job as a singing waiter. The Tramp scrambles with his serving duties until he is thrust into performing. Gamine quickly scribbles the lyrics onto his cuffs, which he loses during his introductory dance routine. The result is an improvised refrain crooned with nonsensical pseudo-French words, illustrating the uselessness of specific dialogue in the presence of sound. We fully understand the meaning of the song thanks to Chaplin’s pantomimic clarity.

Chaplin’s greatest achievements were as a visual performer, whether he was making sound films or silent. He followed Modern Times with The Great Dictator in 1940, and despite the inclusion of dialogue and lengthy lampoon-based political speeches, the scenes we remember are Chaplin’s pseudo-Hitler bouncing a balloon-globe into the air. Chaplin lived by the old saying on the capacity of actions to speak louder than words; specifically, he believed cinema an exclusively pantomimic artform—an opinion no doubt influenced by watching his mother perform in music halls throughout his childhood, and then advancing onto the stage himself at a young age. He told Time in a 1931 interview promoting City Lights, “Action is more generally understood than words. Like the Chinese symbolism it will mean different things according to its scenic connotation. Listen to a description of some unfamiliar object—an African warthog, for example. Then look at a picture of the animal and see how surprised you are.” Chaplin knew the Tramp’s charm resided in his wordless expression, as the character expressed emotions visually, therefore universally. Where audiences then had never heard the Tramp speak, to see Modern Times even with its small amount of sound was revelatory. And yet, its lasting achievements remain purely physical. Consider the impressive planning required to accomplish the scene where the Tramp roller-skates in an under-construction section on the fourth floor of the department store. Chaplin blindfolds himself as he glides about, moving gracefully and coming dangerously close to the edge of an open section of the floor. Certainly, this daring sequence holds significant artistic merit over any instance of sound by its baffling choreography alone.

Not that Chaplin was the type of genius to have every little detail or gag or sequence preplanned in his head. His scenes and narratives developed from a process of improvisation. Scripts were a non-item. Whole scenes were described with a single sentence, such as “Charlie in jail.” On set, the goings-on within said jail would be worked out between Chaplin and his troupe of performers. His genius was bringing these improvised scenes together into a cohesive story, but more than that, making his story as touching and joyful as they often played out to be. The film’s last scene of the Tramp and the Gamine walking into the distance is bittersweet. Not merely because this was the sole instance of Chaplin ending a picture with the Tramp accompanied by a friend, but because it was the Tramp’s last appearance altogether. Modern Times was Chaplin’s last brilliant foray into that singular craft which made him a great artist: a pantomime. From thereon out his pictures would be no less endearing or brilliantly conceived, simply not the classic or iconographic (or soundless) Charlie that made him legendary.


Sources:

Chaplin, Charles. My Autobiography. Simon & Schuster, 1964.

Okuda, Ted; Maska, David. Charlie Chaplin at Keystone and Essanay: Dawn of the Tramp. iUniverse, New York, 2005.

Robinson, David. Chaplin: His Life and Art. McGraw-Hill, second edition, 2001.

Schickel, Richard. The Essential Chaplin: Perspectives on the Life and Art of the Great Comedian. Chicago: I.R. Dee, 2006.

Vance, Jeffrey. Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003.

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