Now, I have seen all of the Chaplin films, as mentioned when I saw City Lights, but I still walked into Modern Times thinking it was the one where Chaplin plays Hitler. Of course, that one is The Great Dictator, but somehow I missed that fairly obvious title and watched a good several minutes thinking, “Wait a minute, where’s Hynkle?”
No, Modern Times is about what the title says (again, how I missed this, I haven’t the foggiest), industrialization, factories, and the little people struggling to retain their humanity amongst all this machinery and might. Sounds hilarious, don’t it? Well, it is, but it also has a lot going on in it that speaks to today as strongly as it did to 1936.
This is a very very late silent film, though it does have some spoken elements, they mostly are in the modern sections. Charlie works in a gigantic factory where the boss watches them on TV sets everywhere, including the bathroom (this predates 1984 by almost a decade) and yells at them to get back to work. Also, some people bring in an eating machine in order to make the feeding of the workers more efficient, and they put on a record that explains how the machine works as they stand there silently.
Charlie really was resisting the whole talkie technology, I remember that he thought that having the Little Tramp talk would ruin the character, so he held off as long as possible. Which meant that he made films with spectacular visual and slapstick moments when everyone was all about the words. In Modern Times, however, we do hear his voice! He becomes a singing waiter, though he protests that he cannot sing, and when he gestures too enthusiastically he loses the lyrics that he wrote on his cuffs, and has to improvise the song with gestures and gibberish–in a song that I have a weird feeling that Joel Grey must have seen before creating his character in Cabaret, because my goodness me does it remind me of the Emcee!
his whole character is much less innocent in this picture, he has a scene where he has been tightening bolts on the assembly line so long that when he gets off it, he’s still automatically tightening everything he sees, especially buttons on a woman’s skirt, or on another woman’s chest, very Harpo Marx stylee! There is another scene where he accidentally does a bunch of cocaine, not something modern audiences realize might occur in a pre-WWII film.
This is a wild comedy, with Charlie working in the factory, fired from the factory, arrested for leading a Communist march that he just happened to be walking down the street in front of, loves jail so much that when he is realised for good behaviour, he tries everything to be arrested again, to no avail. He meets Paulette Goddard, overacting charmingly as The Gamine, stealing bread, he tries to take the blame, she escapes and takes him with her, they try to make a life together with all odds against them.
This is a terrific film, interesting to see in comparison to The Gold Rush as it was made eleven years later, and he had grown a great deal as a filmmaker, not to mention he looks so much older that he had to move on from playing the complete innocent, although still most of what happens to him is outside of his control.