By 1930, “Talkies” were a Hollywood staple; a game-changing technology that slowly but surely eclipsed the landscape of film. Yet in 1936, Charlie Chaplin released Modern Times, an antediluvian “silent” film, and moreover, a thinly-veiled critique of the country’s capitalist devotion to industry; for the times, a brazen choice. Of the decision to avoid recorded dialogue Chaplin said: “Action is more generally understood than words. Like Chinese symbolism, it will mean different things according to its scenic connotation.” While not terribly poetic, this devotion to action effectively reveals Chaplin’s philosophy as a filmmaker. And it certainly jives with Chaplin the Performer, who spent years winning over audiences with his balletic pratfalls and boozer’s grace. As for Modern Times, it is a beautiful depiction of Chaplin’s one of a kind “action,” depicting an artist and performer deeply in his prime. For those of us more familiar with contemporary cinema (i.e. more talking in our movies), Modern Times is a wonderful introduction to a bygone era, and the waddling genius who will forever be associated with it.
Chaplin’s first notably political film begins in a hyper-industrial factory, where filthy men spend long hours performing ambiguously-difficult tasks on a production line, and a white-haired CEO of presumed wealth sits in an office doing a jigsaw puzzle. Chaplin’s Tramp is slowly coming unhinged thanks to the exhausting work, and when his boss tests an automated feeding device on him–to predictably disastrous results–he breaks, running amok in the factory, and eventually being hauled off to the insane asylum. Upon his release, the Tramp is immediately mistaken for the leader of a strike, and taken to prison. As the film progresses, so do these serendipitous calamities, with Chaplin always on the verge of doing something either fantastically terribly or terribly fantastic.
Chaplin’s method as a director was far more improvisational than one might think. He would often begin with an essential premise, building in visual gags and allowing the story to grow around them. This is an important thing to understand about Modern Times, as it certainly follows a strange path to get from A to B to C, and doesn’t really follow a three-act structure. However, inasmuch as Chaplin’s goal was to present as visually dynamic a story as he could, his technique paid out handsomely; any number of scenes can be singled out as eye candy in Modern Times. By ’36 Chaplin had perfected his skills as a director, and surrounded himself with all kinds of talent, from other strong performers to fantastic set designers. All of which resulted in an unforgettable visual experience. Modern Times offers Chaplin a variety of playgrounds to use as he sees fit, and his performances are notably different depending on the circumstances. While his nervous breakdown in the factory is off-the-wall and a bit demented, a later scene finds Chaplin blindfolded and rollerskating balletically on the second floor of a shopping mall, inches from a potentially fatal fall. It is these moments in particular when Charlie Chaplin earns his spot as the focal point of the silent film era. He is simply a wonderment on screen, composing visual set pieces that are the Depression Era equivalent of today’s multimillion dollar CG work.
Still, while Modern Times and Chaplin could comfortably hold the attention of a toddler, a dominant tone in the film is cynicism. Certainly Chaplin’s Tramp is a sweet-hearted character, as is his mostly platonic female companion (Paulette Goddard), but these two are a clear exception. At every turn, the Tramp must deal with distrustful authority figures, more inclined to chuck him into a cell than hear an explanation. This is almost certainly a class commentary, though there’s an element of true naivety to it as well. Often Chaplin’s Tramp feels like a child, his small stature and perpetual restlessness having as much to say about the character as anything. Seeing the 5’5″ scamp bump up against a stern-looking police officer, his eyes characteristically wide, it’s hard not to remember the feeling of sheer terror when, as a child, you got an pretty much any kind of trouble. And while this nostalgic sense of authority allows audiences to quickly connect to the Tramp’s latest predicament, it also reveals Charlie Chaplin’s opinion of authority figures of any sort. Broadly, they are bad, cruel, prone to taking advantage, and disinclined to help.
But as the end of Modern Times suggests, that’s not the whole story. While the world is a hard place, and making one’s way is ultimately a high-stakes gamble, it’s not an impossibility. In fact, while Modern Times takes a decidedly pessimistic view of the world at large, Chaplin’s last major silent work deals ultimately with the joy and necessity of companionship. While adversity must be faced, it needn’t be faced alone. In the end, the Tramp once more makes a hasty getaway, arm in arm with his devoted protege, and as the pair walk down a desolate road to nowhere, they do so in the rosy haze of “us.”