Modern Times (1936)

modern times

My blog, at least on the surface, is directed by reason and ruled by rationale.  While I sometimes stray from the formula (see my occasional dabblings in annual Academy Awards season, etc.), I attempt to methodically determine what is the next best thing to post in conjunction with what has already been posted and what I would like to post in the near- and distant-future.  In this regard, the option for my next film review is obvious: I’ve done three Hitchcock films and three Coppola films (Vertigo, Notorious, Psycho, The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, and The Conversation) and only two silent films (The General and Battleship Potemkin).  It is time, therefore, for a silent film.

I have also recently posted a chapter (or “page” as they say in blog-land) on comedy film entitled “My Take On….Comedy.”  It is time, therefore, for a good comedy picture that demonstrates the concepts highlighted in that page—such as slapstick, burlesque, satire, schtick, and screwball—to be reviewed.

I have also, in conjunction with the chapter on comedy, posted a list of the 350 most significant and witty movie lines in American film history.  Maybe a film with one of those movie lines should be reviewed as well.

That is when the dilemma comes.  There are plenty of silent comedies.  But silent films don’t have dialogue, so how could they possibly have a “movie line”?  Well, for those of an educated cinematic background who took the time to read through all those lines that I posted, they may have noticed a strange occurrence at number 188: Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times: “Smile!”

Familiarity with silent film will lead to an understanding that the actors still speak, and you can read their lips quite well.  The final scene of Modern Times has one such moment.  Paulette Goddard’s “gamin” and Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” are again on the run after another failure to reconcile with the ever-changing world around them.  With the absolute integrity of optimism from which the Tramp could never seem to separated, the Tramp looks at his new love and points at his lips.  With those lips curling up into a big grin, he simply says to her, “Smile!”  With this, Charlie Chaplin provided the greatest non-uttered utterance in film history, because it not only gives the film itself the perfect coalescing feature, but sums up the entirety of Chaplin’s oeuvre.

This oeuvre is not only summed up by the word “Smile” but also in his “BIG 3” silent films: Modern Times, City Lights, and The Gold Rush.   I know of no one who disagrees with these three as Chaplin’s greatest silent works.  While one’s personal favorite may be The Kid or even one of his short films like “Kid Auto Races at Venice” which is included in my list of the 22 Most Important Films of All Time, no one can deny the significance, popularity, and overall impact of these three movies.  Outside of their cultural appeal, these movies are significant because they—like I have already stated—do that which other comedies have never really seemed to match: they end in a smile.

You see, it gets rather systematic and even a little boring to watch many of today’s comedies (I said “many” not “all”).  They are really funny throughout the film and the screenplay is designed so that the final laughs are the hardest: the scenes towards the end push the most limits, cross the most boundaries, and attempt to tickle as many laugh reflexes in the viewers’ minds as possible.  This attempt to not just live up to, but also supersede, the comedic standards set by the remainder of the film, often does not come to fruition.  Instead, we are given stressed out, jumbled wrecks.  Even in cases where the screenwriters succeed in their desires, they subsequently make the rest of the film leading up to the end more undesirable and pointless.

In this regard, Chaplin’s films (which are between sixty and ninety years old depending on the movie), are much more fresh and unique than what we see in other comedies, which have, despite their modernity, become rather stale.  Chaplin never felt that his movies had to follow any sort of exponential or parabolic curve in regards to their comedic appeal.  He was not forced by this sort of mathematical system.  Art should not be confined to mathematics.  With that being said, it wasn’t Chaplin’s intent to create an art film.  He just wanted to contribute to your happiness, to your person, and to your life.  His films pace themselves; he seemed almost guided by his own dexterity with the medium.  This can be seen in the effortless movements of his Tramp—the lovable, impoverished man with baggy pants, a small vest, big shoes and a short mustache who has become one of the most beloved (if not THE most beloved) characters in movie history.

Whereas Buster Keaton was the exhibitor of stoic grace, there was a smoothness to the Tramp’s desperation which ran as a strict antithesis to the stone-faced comedy of Keaton.  The thing is, where Keaton is to Wes Anderson in today’s world, Chaplin has no parallel to our contemporary comedians.  His sentimentality was not a sore thumb, stuck and misfitting within too much comedy.  Nor was his comedy out-of-place in a heaping pile of gushiness.  His self-paced films were exhibitions of balance between romance, comedy and sensibility with just the right amount of entertainment and social commentary.  Like Keaton, nothing ever seemed forced with Chaplin, particularly in his Tramp character.  That was the great criticism of his first sound film, The Great Dictator: his incorporation of sound made things seem all too forced.  The Tramp was surely missed.

Four years following the advent of sound in The Jazz Singer, Chaplin said, “For years, I have specialized in one type of comedy—strictly panto­mime.  I have mea­sured it, gauged it, studied. I have been able to establish exact principles to govern its reactions on audiences. It has a certain pace and tempo. Dialogue, to my way of thinking, always slows action, because action must wait on words.”

Perhaps this is why The Great Dictator, though riotously funny (the opening speech of the film is one of the most hilarious sequences I have seen in any film), has not been as revered as Chaplin’s other works.  In the Tramp, who was his principle character in all his silent films, Chaplin had perfectly nailed the “pace and tempo.”  His words, as written above, were proven in his actions.  His incorporation of sound was, unfortunately, in violation of that pace and tempo.

I have written a significantly large amount in this blog already on the advent of sound in film and how that brought a lot of trepidation to the cinema industry.  Film loyalists bemoaned the possibility that the medium of cinema as a seventh art would be surpassed by a gross emergence of multimedia indulgence.  Too often, we think that sound was a boon to the industry, and in many ways it was.  It allowed for the emergence of the 20th Century Gesamtkunstwerk, and brought Hollywood into prominence.  Without an American foothold, the fate of film would have been quite different.  As for me, I choose not to dabble too much into revisionism.  The point I’m trying to make here is that the advent of sound was controversial at best.  While it helped movies in many ways, it was a serious attack on the purity of film as a sole art medium, and many fantastic filmmakers were destroyed by it.

By the time Al Jolson—who, at the peak of his career was dubbed “The World’s Greatest Entertainer”—was jamming out on his jazz piano in The Jazz Singer, Charlie Chaplin was the real Greatest Entertainer in the world.  His fame had reached huge levels.  He was the insurmountable master-worker of film.  Born in Great Britain in 1889, he was the orphaned son of an alcoholic father and manically ill mother, who set out to live on his own at the young age of fourteen.  At the age of nineteen, he was hired on as part of a touring vaudeville company.  He was a sought-after talent, and was later approached by Mack Sennett’s Keystone Film Company to work for them for $150 a week.

According to Saul Austerlitz, the idea for the Tramp was born by randomly throwing together various outfit parts from Keystone’s wardrobe closet.  The more internal facets of the Tramp’s character were gleaned from various contributions.  Sennett himself contributed the “raucous mayhem” and Chaplin added that charming touch: “the jaunty tone of exuberant politesse—the tipped hat and twirled cane—was Chaplin’s own.”  A figure from Chaplin’s upbringing in London was the inspiration for the Tramp’s iconic waddle, made ever more obvious by those over-sized shoes.

As was stated earlier, Chaplin was not necessarily trying to make art films with his movies, but there is an obvious difference between his feature-length films and the short films that made him famous.  The shorts are of paramount importance in understanding Chaplin; you’ll remember that “Kid Auto Races at Venice” stands at spot number 16 on my list of the Top 22 Most Important Films Ever Made.  In that post, I explain the ranking with the note that “Though it is a short film, it still harnesses the grace that put slapstick back on the map for the first time in a century.  The original film comedy, Venice introduced us not only to an endearing character in Chaplin’s ‘Little Tramp,’ but also with the most important genre in popular film as we know it today.”  His short films undoubtedly are masterworks of comedic prowess, and comedy is undoubtedly the most important genre in popular film as we know it today, hence my 4000 word essay on the subject.

Comedy is so important because it is a medium whereby everyone can be brought to better understand humanity, question tradition, and examine fads.  They can escape reality by looking from the outside-in.  They can also embrace reality by giving life vitality.  Life, after all, is lived, not suffered.  What Chaplin came to understand—or maybe he understood it all along—is that if he made those shorts into features, he could truly utilize all the great things that comedy can offer.  That is why even though Chaplin never really made art movies, his feature films were certainly works of art.  Again, I would like to quote Austerlitz:

“Chaplin’s feature-length films are not merely extensions of his shorts; they are translations of his comic technique into a more flexible, emotive form. The shorts are brilliant, but they primarily document the brilliance of the performer; the features allow Chaplin to vary the emotional palette of his work and to engage his skill as a filmmaker. The shorts had made Chaplin a star, but the features made him an artist. The Tramp is no longer just a miraculously energetic scamp but also a fragile soul wounded by a cruel, uncaring world. Chaplin features like The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), and City Lights (1931) are hardly less astonishingly amusing than his shorts, but they add a dimension of feeling heretofore lacking in his work.”

In making City Lights five years earlier, Chaplin had already challenged the public.  After all, it was a silent film.  Talkies were the thing not only of the future, but also of the present by 1931.  But, Chaplin knew the Tramp.  He had, as was stated earlier, measured, gauged and studied the Tramp’s pantomime to the point of formulaic precision.  He could not sacrifice the Tramp to dialogue.  And so, the Tramp would have to go.

After City Lights, Chaplin would take a hiatus from film.  Few directors (save Terrence Malick and Stanley Kubrick) can survive such a long break from the industry, particularly in the early days of cinema wherein Chaplin operated.  But, the Tramp couldn’t die yet.

That is why he made Modern Times, and the whole premise of the film is perfect as the Tramp’s ride into the sunset.  That triumphant exit of the most beloved character in film is quite literal.  If you look at the left panel of this blog, you will see a black and white picture below the table of contents for my pages.  That is Charlie’s Tramp with Paulette Godard walking arm and arm into the distance.  That is the final shot of Modern Times, and one of the most iconic closing images of any film ever made.  It really is the Tramp’s swan song; and, in a lot of ways, it was Chaplin’s.  Though he would make more movies later, most notably The Great Dictator, Limelight, and Monsieur Verdoux, and he would maintain the support of André Bazin and Jean Renoir (no two greater allies could be asked for in the social circles of cinema) to fight for him in the face of relentless criticism, Chaplin the movie-man was never the same again.

Chaplin was seen as a product of the early American twentieth century.  More than that, he represented all that was the late Progressive Era in the West.  Chaplin’s films predated the Great Depression, but they are rampant with images of a divided America.  Already, he tackled intense Progressive Era politics with all its class distinction and speculation in City Lights and The Gold Rush, respectively.  Now, he would address industrialization.  The political accuracies or inaccuracies of his own world-view as manifest both in the film and without it in his personal life are unnecessary to examine, the point is that the emotional repercussions of the political situation effected people.  Industrialization and urbanization led to the minimization of the individual.  As these things went on all around the person, the Tramp evolved from a brilliantly funny mime to a representation of the normal American.  Or Brit.  Or Frenchman.  Or anyone…the Tramp was at war with the evolving world and all its machines.  He was always out of place, even in those first days at the Venice racetracks.  But in Modern Times, he was no longer out of place among humans, he was out of place among all things.

The images of this battle are perfectly Chaplin-esque, with the Tramp rushing to get out of a situation, making a whole new one, and somehow backing out of the latter while resolving the first.  The clumsiness and dexterity in Modern Times have come to influence many iconic images in cinema and television, the most significant of which being that great scene in I Love Lucy when Lucy is placed on a chocolate assembly line and given the job to clear a conveyor belt.  The belt moves by so fast, she begins to stuff pieces of chocolate in her mouth.  Chaplin’s scenes in the beginning of Modern Times—including his scene on a similar conveyor belt, a struggle with a machine that feeds its owner mechanically, and a botched and hilarious attempt to manipulate the gears inside one of those great mechanized factory products—are just as funny as Lucille Ball’s recreation.

When one stops to consider further the auteurism that directed Chaplin’s production of Modern Times, we see more than just a socio-political commentary, but also a fight that Chaplin himself was fighting with the new talkie trend.  It has been well-documented in my other reviews how the struggle with the film itself is a great informer of the movie that is being filmed.  Just as Pushkin wrote poems about poetry, many directors make movies about film.  Their own understanding of their role as director, particularly late in their careers, becomes their main emphasis for a masterwork.  For example, Hitchcock and Coppola both addressed the role of a director as an omniscient manipulator and intruder in Vertigo and The Conversation, respectively.  In this regard, Modern Times is Chaplin’s commentary on movies.  His approach however, was different.  Instead of asking moral questions like Hitchcock and Coppola, Chaplin instead chose to document his own struggle with trying to preserve his style in a world that probably wouldn’t accept it.  He was afraid to make the Tramp come back in 1936, but he did it anyway.  When this is understood, the Tramp’s fight with industrialization can also symbolize Chaplin’s own struggle against the emergence of movie sound.

Chaplin very well could have failed when he made Modern Times.  At the box office, he did.  It wasn’t nearly as successful as his earlier films.  But, he succeeded in terms of quality.  The Tramp learns to survive despite the machines around him, even accepting their existence.  With that in mind, the incorporation of some sound synchronization in Modern Times represents not a cessation, but a victory.  Find me a performance funnier than when the Tramp sings at the bar in faux-French and Italian.  You probably can’t.  Here, we see the Tramp, or Chaplin, or embracing the evolution—or revolution—all around him and coming out on top, in a miraculous display of comedic genius.  We begin to see the ultimate triumph that was Modern Times.  It was one part swan song, one part political commentary, one part victory over the forces that tried to conquer it.

Modern Times can be interpreted on so many levels when understood this way.  It was about America, it was about the movies, and it was about Chaplin himself.  It was also about us.  That is what makes the Tramp so great: he represents everyone and everything.

9 thoughts on “Modern Times (1936)

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