(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)
Modern Times has a special place in my heart, because it was the first Charlie Chaplin movie I saw in an actual theater (when it was re-released in 1972). On top of that, despite its overall theme (the effects of the Great Depression), I find it a very bright, cheery movie. It’s as though even the bleak themes of the story (the Tramp’s nervous breakdown, the gamin’s losing her sisters to the state, etc.) aren’t enough to tamp down the happiness of which the Tramp convinces himself at movie’s end.
In his review of Modern Times, ’30s movie critic Otis Ferguson cynically stated that the movie was such a series of set-pieces that it could easily have been chopped into a series of two-reelers titled The Waiter, The Prisoner, and so forth. One could make a case for that, but even so, what delightful set pieces! In just his first few minutes on-screen, Chaplin, as a put-upon factory worker, bursts forth with more manic energy (as actor) and vivid imagination (as writer/director) than ought to be expected of him by this time in his career (he was 46 when the movie was released). The bit with the nut-tightening (everything that looks like two bolts eventually gets his attention, which causes trouble for a couple of buxom women), the scene with the automatic food-feeder, the Tramp getting caught in the factory’s cog workings – any of these scenes alone would be regarded as a classic in any other comic’s movie career.
It’s also interesting to see the compromise that Chaplin made at this point between silent and sound movies. The movie does use talking figures, but only as necessary – a voice on the radio, the factory’s boss on a Big-Brother-like TV screen (How prescient was that in 1936?), and a delightful bit involving nothing but the Tramp and a prim minister’s wife sipping tea on empty stomachs. Long after Buster Keaton had been used up and spat out by the Big Studio system, he spoke of making movies where his comic lead character, or others on screen, wouldn’t speak any more than necessary. Here, Chaplin showed how seamlessly this could have been done if silent movies had continued. (One of the biggest treats for Chaplin fans of the time was hearing his voice on-screen for the first time, when the Tramp does a nonsense number as a singing waiter. There would be many critics who would wish that had been the last time Chaplin had spoken in a movie.)
With its themes of unemployment and strikes, it’s also obvious that Chaplin had Something to Say here, which has been another sore point among his critics who think he should only be funny. But I’d say that Chaplin’s points are subtle and worth making: The lovely opening shot, where a flock of sheep metamorphose into a crowd of factory workers heading for work; the bit where a red flag falls off a construction truck, and the Tramp, trying to get the truck driver’s attention with it, inadvertently leads a crowd of hostile strikers. And you can’t help but identify with the Tramp’s look of puzzlement when he’s told he’ll be going on strike after only a single day back at work.
The other major actor in the movie is Paulette Goddard (soon to become Mrs. Charles Chaplin) as the streetwise gamin who eventually partners with the Tramp. Visually, the camera loves her, but she tends to overdo her part a little. Luckily, the storyline gives her to us in very small doses until she meets the Tramp, so she’s not hard to take. (It gets a little worse in The Great Dictator, especially with sound.)
Perhaps never before or since has such a bitter social statement gone down so smoothly in a movie. Modern Times is a truly worthy farewell to Chaplin’s silent career.
”At the end he [the Tramp] and his yearnings must go down that road again. As they do, in Modern Times, they take silent film with them.” – Walter Kerr, The Silent Clowns