When you think about it, Modern Times seems a strange name for such an old-fashioned movie. No one in America, or Europe, was making silent films 1936.
Of course, it wasn’t really silent. It had a recorded musical score (composed by Chaplin) and a great many sound effects (much more than City Lights). It even had some talking – mostly from public address systems, phonographs, and radios. The only time you hear sound from a character’s lips is in the film’s climax, when Chaplin sings…albeit with nonsense lyrics. If Modern Times had been released eight years earlier, it would have been called a talkie. But for 1936, and 2018, it’s a silent film.
We now come to a turning point in this chronological Chaplin Diary. Here we have what is arguably Chaplin’s last performance as The Tramp (even though he’s never called that in the film). And for the last time, a major silent film star made a silent film. I watched the movie on FilmStruck.
Modern Times starts as an attack on the dehumanization of labor. Charlie (identified in the credits as A Factory Worker) struggles on an assembly line, tightening bolts as they go by at a frightening rate. He suffers a nervous breakdown and is soon out on the street. From there the film becomes episodic, and repetitive. He gets a job. He messes up. He goes to jail. He’s let out. He gets another job. And so on.
The story repeats itself, but the gags don’t. Charlie roller-skates blindfolded, unaware of a hole in the floor. Charlie, trying to do a good deed, is arrested as a Communist agitator. Charlie, always the gentleman, sets out to get himself arrested.
But the best sequence comes early. Charlie is used as a guinea pig for testing an eating machine that pushes food into workers’ mouths so that the company can eliminate lunch hour. The automatic face wiper becomes a brilliant running topper throughout this brilliantly hilarious sequence.
Chaplin found his best leading lady in Paulette Goddard. A rising star in her own right, she’s beautiful, energetic, and magnetic. For the first time, the ingenue is Chaplin’s equal; like him, she’s cunning and rebellious, and skilled at stealing food. The movie bends backwards to make us know that their relationship is neither romantic nor sexual. It’s just two people trying to get along.
(In real life, their relationship was romantic and sexual. Goddard would become Chaplin’s third wife and third divorce.)
Echoes of Chaplin’s previous movies run through Modern Times. As in such early shorts as The Fireman, The Pawnshop, and Pay Day, Charlie makes a mess of all sorts of menial or service jobs. He fails at an assembly line, a shipyard, a department store, a factory (where he works with his former Keystone partner Chester Conklin), and as a waiter.
Modern Times may have helped Chaplin gain the Communist smear that eventually exiled him from the USA. With a red flag joke, the horribly-treated workers, and the strike sequence, Communists of the 1930s loved this movie. They ignored the fact that Charlie didn’t understand the meaning of the flag, that workers in the USSR were treated much worse than those in the USA, and that the movie doesn’t show strikers in a good light. And, of course, Chaplin himself was an extremely successful capitalist.
Chaplin chose to close Modern Times with his iconic ending: The Little Tramp, walking away from the camera, down a road to his next adventure. But this time, it was different. He had a companion. Together, as Chaplin and Goddard walked away, they closed the door on silent cinema.
Modern Times didn’t lose money, but unlike his previous films, it wasn’t the huge hit. To stay relevant, Chaplin would have to talk.