Modern Times (1936)

Directed by Charlie Chaplin

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Modern Times was the last appearance of Charlie Chaplin’s famous character, the Tramp.  It’s going to be hard for me to speak about his character, himself and his films considering this is only the second Chaplin film I’ve seen (after 1931’s City Lights), but bear with me, I did some research.

Chaplin’s Tramp persona might have been the most internationally recognizable person at the time this film was made.  His character, deeply ingrained in the silent era of movies, was universal in many ways.  The Tramp was a working class hero.  He faced the same burdens many people faced, but he went through it with some kind of halo around him, not one that protected him from anything, but one that prevented him from ever getting down on himself.  This character just floats through life, in and out of embarrassing or life-threatening situations, with something resembling a smile on his face.  In Modern Times, Chaplin said this about his and his co-star Paulette Goddard’s characters: “We are children with no sense of responsibility, whereas the rest of humanity is weighed down with duty. We are spiritually free.”

The Tramp, in the first of four acts in the film, works on a factory line doing mind-numbingly repetitive work.  He’s effectively lobotomized by this work, and, for comical effect, it changes the way he interacts with the people around them, seeing their buttons and noses as more screws he must tighten.

Now, this is a slapstick comedy, I suppose.  I’m not sure how else to categorize a film like this, but there is also a lot under the surface.  The film was released in 1936, half a decade or so after the beginning of the Great Depression.  The Tramp, here, is a character constantly looking for work and who suffers from the effects of extreme industrial modernization.

The new work economy, while churning about products at a faster and faster rate, makes life hard for people like the Tramp, the woman he loves (Goddard), and other people he bumps into throughout the film.  Here’s this, from a website devoted to Charlie Chaplin (charliechaplin.com) on what led to this film: Chaplin was acutely preoccupied with the social and economic problems of this new age. In 1931 and 1932 he had left Hollywood behind, to embark on an 18-month world tour. In Europe, he had been disturbed to see the rise of nationalism and the social effects of the Depression, of unemployment and of automation. He read books on economic theory; and devised his own Economic Solution, an intelligent exercise in utopian idealism, based on a more equitable distribution not just of wealth but of work.

In Modern Times, the Tramp’s almost saintly goal is just to have the opportunity to work in order to make a home for himself and the woman he loves, who comes from a similarly unlucky background.  Where other films feature characters hoping to win the lottery, so to speak, the Tramp wants nothing more than to find a job, any job.

While looking for work, he bounces in and out of jail, even preferring jail because life inside is easier than life outside.  In one scene, the Tramp takes the blame for a stolen loaf of bread, protecting Goddard whom he only then meets and quickly falls for.  Goddard’s character is similar to that of the blind girl the Tramp falls in love with in City Lights.  In both cases, the female lead comes from a struggling background, economic to a degree in both cases.

So Modern Times is about the struggle for a common worker, the Tramp, to put a life together.  During his journey he bounces in and out of prison, works multiple jobs, lives in a house that is literally falling apart and is mistaken for being the leader of a political uprising.  This film covers so much symbolic ground with such efficiency, but the Tramp never seems to recognize the importance of any of it.  His goals are remarkably simple considering all the stuff he runs into.

And that everyman quality of the Tramp seems to be what made him so universally loved.  Modern Times was released 9 years after the first movie with dialogue spoken aloud (The Jazz Singer), and at a time when more and more movies incorporated spoken sound.  Chaplin even wrote dialogue for this film, but he ultimately decided to keep the Tramp a silent character, thus making him more relatable to audiences all over the world.

When Chaplin moves, all his expression is determined by his facial expressions, body movement and gestures, basically things you could read into no matter where you are and no matter what language you speak.  Near the end of the film, the Tramp must sing a song, and he does, allowing us to hear his voice for the first time, but he sings a song that sounds Italian but which is just gibberish.  So even when he finally speaks, what he says is still abstract, like his movements in a way.

There is likely a lot more to say about this film that I’m not prepared to dissect.  I do know that this is considered one of Chaplin’s great films, and it’s easy for a movie to be considered great after maybe it wasn’t immediately.  There are plenty of such ‘cult’ hits, but Modern Times appears to have been considered great right from the start.  This is from a review in July of 1936 from The Guardian:

“Watching Modern Times one is compelled to marvel again at the miraculous soundness of taste which has led people of so many countries to take Chaplin to their hearts. His reaction to life has a humble, saintly, and therefore triumphant quality.”

People back then seemed to understand not only the quality of the film, but the legend of Charlie Chaplin.  It makes me wonder just how grand he must have seemed.  Forget when The Beatles said they’re bigger than Jesus, I think Chaplin might’ve been bigger than Jesus.

And yet, his persona is that of this small, goofy man who waddles this way and that, and his superpower, if anything, is that he doesn’t give up.  He’s an admirable hero in that way and really quite remarkably graceful in his movements.  After all, Chaplin was a skilled visual comedian, and the Tramp’s gaffes were really carefully-choreographed movements that weren’t so far removed from a type of dance.

In one scene, the Tramp roller skates around a large, empty department store, delighting in the freedom of no supervision with Goddard like they’re children at a sleepover.  He skates blindfolded, very close to his mark, meant to look like the edge of the floor, and does so with surprising skill.

And it’s quite the illusion to make it seem like he’s skating so close to the edge.  The lower floors of the department store were painted and placed near the camera to deceive the eye into thinking he was on the third floor.  Regardless, Chaplin had to get as close to the ‘edge’ as possible, and he does so multiple times.

The last thing to note is that Chaplin’s character, while seemingly so goddamn positive, was considered a subversive character by some.  Maybe this isn’t the best example, just the most extreme, but this is found in the same review in The Guardian from July of 1936:  A “Nazi spokesman said that reports from abroad had indicated that the picture had a ‘Communist tendency’ and that this was no doubt the reason why the picture was unacceptable.”

All Chaplin imagery was banned in Germany, and it’s quite amazing now to see how something so seemingly simple could be considered so dangerous.  Of course, information spread much differently back then, slowly, and Chaplin’s Tramp character had so much influence.  Hell, the Guardian review begins by addressing how much time it has taken for the film to reach Europe, suggesting that though this is the new Chaplin picture, it might already be old when they receive it.

So Modern Times is, on the surface, a polite and simple comedy about two characters who don’t speak, and yet the film seems to say so much about the world and to its audience.  The film ends with Chaplin and Goddard walking off into the sunset, and the final text card tells Goddard and the audience, basically, to keep on keeping on.

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This is a film, and Chaplin a director, who understands where his audience is coming from and seems to have strong empathy for them.  We were still stuck in the Great Depression at the time of the film’s release, and the Tramp’s farewell message was for everyone to keep their heads up.

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