Masterpiece Memo: Modern Times

Modern Times is one of four or five movies I have seen many, many times, that when I do sit down and watch it again I have to scratch my head and wonder – is this my favorite film of all time? Most recently I took it upon myself to introduce my recently turned 3 year-old daughter to the iconic Charlie Chaplin. Maybe she could help. At her age choosing a favorite is much easier. I’m still waiting for her to give me her honest opinion on the film, but judging by her attention and laughter during the film I am confident she is a fan.


Modern Times is a marvel, without doubt an experience you can say “they simply don’t make movies like that” without it actually being a cliche. A movie from way back in 1936, the silent era were the legendary Charlie Chaplin brought pure comedy to a sometimes deflated world with his Little Tramp character. Here, the boom of technology and industry is one of the most central aspects of Modern Times – that is no secret – things are changing, trying to be bigger, faster, better, and we continue to struggle to keep up. This is not just Chaplin executing his genius of the modern world of the thirties, this is someone hinting at our future for decades to come. We watch really old sci-fi films and discover the world did not turn out that way, nowhere near, whereas here Chaplin appears to have nailed it – in many ways we and the world have not changed much at all in eighty years.

Chaplin plays a factory worker, who gets himself into so much bother (often seemingly accidentally or though circumstance), resulting in some of the very best in slapstick and physical comedy. So many iconic moments from that first act that we all know all too well. The whole factory working fiasco is a remarkable sequence of film-making, sublime comic timing from Chaplin that must have set the very high benchmark for everything else to follow. The choreography is still mesmerizing watching it now, the multi-character actions timed to perfection – like clockwork you might say. You flicker through the hundreds of comedy films you have seen in your life in your deep subconscious and think to yourself that this must have been were they found some inspiration.

Chaplin makes so many comments on the state of society, and as we move forward we have to adapt. But the comedy remains paramount. In one brilliantly inventive scene he is being force-fed by a machine, and almost has to eat a metal bolt, a notion on the choices of consumption rather than our actual nutrition perhaps. But again, very funny. Later he pulls a wedge away from a secure spot, only to release the huge boat crashing back into the water to the shock of the other workers. He was doing his job, asked by the boss to find a piece of wood the shape of the wedge, but essentially has landed himself in hot water. Like many of the scenes in Modern Times, it is a side-splitting moment, but there is still a vulnerable charm to this character.
I mean, he has a nervous breakdown, a relevant, crucially important issue that Chaplin does not merely sweep under the carpet with the words imposed on the screen. Though he rarely dwells on the sadness or anguish for long periods he makes sure it is painfully obvious to see on the faces, of those here going hungry or struggling financially. So much is said about the social ramifications of the economic decline of the Great Depression, not only the hardships and suffering, but also the illuminating courage and determination to crawl out of the hole and succeed. These common standards and social issues are right here for us to see today, to varying degrees and nature of course, the circumstances are transferable all the same. A comedian, sure, but Chaplin was also a thinker, throwing the big issues into the air, making us laugh while still alarming us to the importance of them. As for the courage and the hope, well, he is making that loud and clear too.
The Little Tramp is a misfit and a marvel, and we love him as he roller-skates dangerously close to the edge in a department store or shakily carries a tray of food and drink across an overly crowded dance floor. Although hilarious throughout, his amusing antics demonstrate a man just trying to get by, to aid a hopeful future, always seemingly the optimist here no matter how many times he finds himself in a pickle or being arrested. When covering for The Gamin (Paulette Goddard) after stealing the bread – thus developing one of the most memorable and convincing instant attractions and alliances in cinema – he is arrested once again, and this becomes a reoccurring event. He is arrested for silly things, but he is neither a trouble causer nor a menace to society (not quite), his motives are selfless acts of generosity and good will.
The chemistry and rapport between Chaplin and Goddard is magical and comforting all at the same time. You buy into their companionship and the trust they have for one another, two small fish struggling to make ends me in a big evolving pool. There’s even a what-if-we-were-rich-and-happy fantasy scene, you can beckon a cow to stop outside your door and pick fruit from a trees that leans into your window. We all yearn the idyllic life, especially in times of need, and they show us it is perfectly okay to dream. The two of them eventually take refuge in an old shack of a small building, and make do – it is no Buckingham Palace she accepts.
Goddard is ravishing in her raggedy dress and dirt-smeared face. She is both a timid young creature and a feisty beast, doing what she has to do to cater for her family while never losing that spark. We are introduced to her when stealing bananas on the waterfront, she makes her quick escape and stands there defiantly eating a banana – it is almost a middle finger to the society that would dare to try and stop her. Goddard and Chaplin play slightly different sides of the same coin, and are a compelling team in spite of and exactly due to their mischief and determination. At the end they still find a certain blissful hope in the very lows, inspired by a fighting spirit and sense for adventure.
The poignant, unforgettable Smile theme written by Chaplin for Modern Times has indeed brought many smiles to thousands of listeners. The lyrics of the song (by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons some 20 years later) were clearly inspired by Chaplin’s direct, optimistic message to Goddard’s character at the end of the movie. To smile, even though your heart is aching. You’ll get by. And what’s the use of crying. You’ll find that life is still worthwhile if you just smile. You can clearly see her mouth “You betcha. Let’s go.” as she takes his advice, she and us are warmed by this charming, funny fellow. Chaplin teaches us whenever he is around that life is sweet in places, armed with smiles and laughs, and we take that by the hand and go get it.

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