March 2, 2024

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AFI Countdown Challenge #81: Modern Times

Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp runs afoul of modern living and falls in love in this mostly silent comedy.

I’d never seen a Charlie Chaplin movie before I got to this one, and that’s one of the things I enjoy about this personal challenge:  seeing things for the first time.

I also enjoy reflecting on things I’ve seen many times, but that’s not for today.

So, what was my take-away on Modern Times?  This is the movie where, famously, Chaplin went through a series of gears as he worked in a factory.  He also had to deal with an automated eating machine, but if you think this whole thing is just Chaplin’s Tramp (or “factory worker”) having problems on the job, well, you’re a bit mistaken.

The factory worker is, in fact, fired from that job about twenty minutes into a nearly 90 minute movie.

Much of the film is actually just short sketches mostly of slapstick, and some of them surprised me.  The Tramp gets arrested multiple times during the course of the movie, often over misunderstandings due to weird coincidences (such as here where he’s mistaken for the leader of a communist rally).  He gets along well in prison, even when he accidentally uses some “nose candy” meaning, yes, we got some cocaine humor in a movie from 1936.

Around halfway through the movie, the Tramp finally meets “the gamin,” a young orphaned girl that he romances in a manner that made me wonder how old she was supposed to be.  The girl is played by actress Paulette Goddard who actually had a nice film career long past this movie, well into the talking era.  She also married and divorced Chaplin, so…yeah.  As it is, she’s a charming screen presence, someone whose story seems more serious than the Tramp’s but still brings about some nice humor when she needs it.

And therein lies the real focus of the movie:  the Great Depression.  Chaplin’s Tramp gains and loses multiple jobs during the course of the movie, and unemployment and bread lines seem to be something that is happening all around town.  It’s no wonder the Tramp prefers life in prison.  It’s comfortable once he foils a prison break.  That likewise goes on to explain why there was a communist rally, or why when the Tramp briefly gets a job as a night watchman in a department store that the burglars he encounters aren’t looking to steal anything:  they want food.  The Tramp seems inclined to do as little as possible until he meets the gamin and promises her a nice house someday with a cow that produces milk on the spot and a fruit tree.

On the other end is technology.  The factories are masses of gears and presses, but while the movie doesn’t feature characters talking (something that could and had been accomplished as seen with the earlier film The Jazz Singer) much of the sound here comes from sound effects.  The factory parts, the breaking of glass, all of it produces sound, and there are human voices to be heard, though most of them are themselves “artificial” voices.  Voices can come over the radio, over a television device of some kind, or from a recording.  Chaplin does sing at the end, a nonsense song with a matching dance, but his regular speaking voice is not to be heard anywhere within the movie.  What speaking voices are heard come, in one form or another, out of a machine.

I must say, Chaplin was a delightful presence.  He had a lot of natural rhythm and grace that played well for slapstick or just the way he moved around a set.  The Tramp’s distinctive walk was present, but he was a guy who could move with a limberness that worked well for silent comedy.  Complete with an expressive face and a good sense of how to react, and it’s easy to see why Chaplin was one of the biggest stars of his era.  I’ll be seeing him again before this countdown is over, but he ends this one at the right place:  he and the gamin may both be broke and unemployed, but they still have each other.

They’ll get by.  And if the Tramp has someone to share his misadventures with as the two walk off down the road, well, that works out just fine for both of them, doesn’t it?

NEXT UP:  Let’s take a look forward to 1969’s violent “anti-Western” The Wild Bunch from director Sam Peckinpah.