Cinematic Century

1936 – Modern Times

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Well, well, well, look what we have here. Despite the fact that by 1936 the talkies had entirely supplanted the silents as the dominant form of cinema, good old Charlie Chaplin was still hanging on. Chaplin was convinced that the talkies were a fad, and remained obstinate in his conviction that he was right, and the silents would remain the true form of the pictures. And even though the Jazz Singer had ushered in talkies almost ten years prior to this film being released, Chaplin still stuck to his guns and gave us Modern Times, one of his most famous and recognizable films. It’s a film that shows off everything that Chaplin was capable of doing, even though it’s not my favorite of his work. And yet, Chaplin is such an amazing filmmaker and storyteller that even though this film is sandwiched between what I feel are his two masterpieces, and doesn’t quite stand up to them, it’s still the best film of the year. Not that this was a particularly tough year. Some years I really have to struggle to figure out which film I’ll feature for this project, and some hard decisions are going to have to be made. But 1936? Not so much. I suppose we could have gotten campy and ironic and talked about Reefer Madness, but while I do have a special pace in my heart for “bad movies” I don’t think any of them could beat films that I unironically love.  There’s also another installment in the Thin Man series that came out in ’36, but I really think that strongest of that series was the original film, the rest are just kind of pale imitations. I suppose we could have watched a different William Powell and Myrna Loy film with the Oscar-winning Great Ziegfeld, but I’ve never actually seen that film. And, I don’t really have a strong desire to do so, since musicals from this era usually fall a little flat for me. But, even though 1936 didn’t exactly offer stiff competition, Modern Times still easily deserves to be featured for this project, because even though there’re other films that I enjoy more than it, it’s still a terrific film.

After City Lights Chaplin finally started to feel like this whole talkie thing may be around to stay. Or, at the very least, a gimmick for him to try out. So, he started working on what would be his first talkie, and decided to make it a real classic. Chaplin began looking around, trying to find inspiration for a new story to tell. And, taking a look at the world, he found a pretty obvious inspiration. The Great Depression. Chaplin’s work almost always focused on the downtrodden, but the economic horrors and devastation that the Depression was causing, and the predatory capitalism that spawned it all, and knew he had to be a little more specific. Chaplin hoped to make this a grand statement on the state of the common man, and the injustices that are put upon them. But, in order to do this, he decided he couldn’t chance things with too much experimentation. Even though Chaplin had been courting the idea of making his first talkie, he decided to stick to his classic shtick, and focus on telling an important story, not having to worry about also trying out an entirely new style of film-making. Chaplin was worried that the appeal of the Little Tramp wouldn’t translate to the talkies, and you know, he may be right. Because the Little Tramp never really did take that jump. The Barber in the Great Dictator certainly shares a lot of similarities with the Tramp, but he’s certainly a different character. And, with such an important message to get across to the people Chaplin decided to stick with the basics, and deliver a very consistent and enjoyable example of what he was capable of.

 

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As always, Modern Times follows the exploits of the perpetually downtrodden Little Tramp. But, in a shocking turn of events, this story starts off with the Tramp doing relatively well. He’s working in a massive factory on an assembly line, meting out a meager existence. Although, he does have to deal with some dehumanizing aspects of the job, such as the torturous work hours, the hostile working conditions, and the fact that his boss is willing to offer up the Tramp as a guinea pig for some sort of automated employee feeder device. And, all of those issues finally wear down on the Tramp, causing him to have a complete mental breakdown, which sends the Tramp out to a hospital to recuperate. And, unfortunately, when he’s finally released he finds that the workers of the factory have gone on strike, and he ends up getting involved in a massive protest outside the factory. The Tramp is then arrested as a Communist Agitator, and tossed into a prison. However, things actually go pretty well for the Tramp in prison. He enjoys the regimented life, and the guaranteed food, and he even gets a great reputation from the prison guards after inadvertently stopping a prison-break while high on cocaine that he thought was salt. Things get complicated in prison.

The Tramp is eventually freed from prison, against his will, and is sent out onto the mean streets again, in desperate look for a functioning life. He was given a letter from the warden of the prison that insists he’s a man of character, but that doesn’t seem to be enough to get him some work. And, after a couple failed attempts at starting a new career, the Tramp decides that his only real option is to be sent back to the good life in prison. And, luckily, he finds a way into prison when he sees a young woman named Ellen stealing bread. Her father was recently killed in the same protests that the Tramp got arrested at, and has been surviving on her own ever since. So, the Tramp offers to get arrested and let her escape. This doesn’t work though, and they both end up getting arrested. But, the paddywagon they get stuck into gets into a car accident, and the Tramp and Ellen decide to escape instead. They begin spending time together, and decide that they can try to work together to form a functioning life. Which means they need to send the Tramp out to find employment once again. This then leads the Tramp into getting a job as a nightwatchman at a massive department store, where they cook up a pretty solid scam wherein the Tramp and Ellen can eat the food and sleep in the beds at night. Unfortunately, during their first night some robbers break in. One of them turns out to have been a worker at the factory though, and he decides to leave the Tramp safe during their robbery. However, the next morning the owners of the department store find what has happened, and call the police to arrest the Tramp.

The Tramp spends a few week in prison, but this time actually is looking forward to being released, to see what Ellen has been up to. And she’s been busy. She’s gotten them a pretty depressing little shack to live in by the waterfront, but they’re both pleased to have a roof over their head and overlook its flaws. Plus, as soon as they get settled in their new home the Tramp learns that the factory is being repopened, and races off to get employed once again. And, as a previous employee, he even gets a pretty cushy job, following around and engineer while they repair some of the old machine. But, just as soon as the Tramp gets into the swing of things he finds out that the workers are going on strike once again, and he’s out of a job. And, while leaving, the Tramp is mistaken for a man who threw a brick at a policeman, and is arrested yet again. He gets released once more, and finds that Ellen has really gotten herself together. She’s gotten a job as a singer at a dinner club, and even has a job lined up for the Tramp as a waiter. Things end up working pretty well at the club, and the two are a massive hit. Which means it’s time for another disaster. It turns out the police have been looking for Ellen this whole time, and have finally tracked her down at the club. The Tramp and Ellen manage to escape the police, and realize that they just need to strike out and find a new city to live in, having burned every possible bridge. So, they pack up and begin walking into the sunset, unsure of their future, but hopeful.

 

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Any film featuring the Little Tramp is going to be an absolute delight. I believe that wholeheartedly. And Modern Times is no exception. It’s a truly wonderful film, and it really is one of his finest productions, a near-perfect distillation of what his type of storytelling could accomplish. It’s just kind of a shame that it comes nestled in between City Lights and the Great Dictator, the two films that I think are Chaplin’s best. That ends up making it seem like Modern Times is somewhat lacking, but that really seems to be because it isn’t a master piece. It’s still a damn fine film. Chaplin is getting to put out some of his most impressive slapstick in this film, giving some of his most delightful and shocking stunts of all time. The whole blindfolded roller-skating bit still blows my mind every time I watch it. Chaplin doesn’t really get to be as emotional as he does in City Lights, but the comedy he’s putting out is absolutely top-notch. This may be the funniest of all Chaplin’s films, at least the one that most hits my personal comedy tastes. I also adore Paulette Goddard in this film, and while she goes on the bigger and better things in the Great Dictator, her role as Ellen is a lot of fun, full of hope and joy despite the horrible situation that her character is put into. It’s a wonderfully funny film, and I think it may be the Little Tramp film that has the most on its mind.

Like I said earlier, Chaplin started this film thinking that it would be his first talkie, because he’d finally found something that he wanted to say. Things didn’t quite shake out that way, and he saved that honor for his next film, but it’s still clear that Chaplin had found a topic that he felt needed to be explored. The horrors and devastation that the Great Depression waged on the American people was really just a symptom of the larger plague of exploitation of the common citizen, and Chaplin realized that this was something that was really going to speak to people. the Little Tramp is a great mirror for society, and had always represented how hard things were for the average person. But this film takes that idea and amplifies it to an insane degree. Modern Times shows us a Tramp who is arrested four times on trumped up charges, he loses job after job, and he’s subjected to all sorts of punishment just for trying to survive. Chaplin would eventually be targeted during the Red Scare of the 1950’s, and while I don’t know if Chaplin actually had socialistic leanings or not, it’s hard to deny that this film showed him grappling with the failing of capitalism. He was living through a time when the predatory nature of capitalism caused a global catastrophe, while people all around the world began suffering and struggling to survive, and he decided he needed to put his two cents in. Obviously Chaplin was going to really have some huge thoughts to share with us in his next film, but Modern Times really becomes an important moment in Chaplin’s career, showing that he was willing to take his easy to digest shtick and put some political and important thoughts behind it.

 

Modern Times was written and directed by Charlie Chaplin and released by United Artists, 1936.

 

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