LAUGH… CRY AND THRILL TO HIS GENIUS…!
In 1931, Charlie Chaplin released City Lights and started promoting the film. His journeys that year took him to many different places. He could see the impact of the Great Depression and he also met Mahatma Gandhi, two things that would influence his next movie. During their conversations, it was obvious that the Indian independence activist didn’t like the progress of modern technology. Chaplin disagreed with Gandhi, even though he expressed some sympathy for the problem of machinery replacing workers with profit as the sole motivation. It’s an ideological argument that we’re still having.
The conversation stuck in Chaplin’s memory as he came up with the idea for Modern Times, his last silent picture.
Working on an assembly line
This time the Tramp (Chaplin) is working in a factory on an assembly line where the management keeps increasing the pace and workload. He is also subjected to a new efficiency experiment where a feeding machine is tested, but it malfunctions in a very messy way. In the end, the Tramp loses it, wreaks havoc in the factory and is sent to a hospital. After being treated by doctors, the Tramp is released and immediately lands himself in more trouble. He’s mistakenly arrested by police after taking part in a Communist demonstration without realizing it, and sent to jail…
Preparing for a talkie
Chaplin did think he was going to do a talkie at first and prepared for it. But then he realized that the Tramp simply cannot start speaking. Audiences wouldn’t accept it. Maybe so, but what’s more important is that Chaplin’s episodic approach to the story benefits so much from the silent format. Very little dialogue is needed – all the laughs and emotions are there in the slapstick and scenes between the Tramp and Ellen (Paulette Goddard), who’s called ”the Gamine”.
Still, this isn’t an entirely silent film. There’s sound effects and music, including the scene where the Tramp has been hired to wait on tables and sing at a café. After forgetting the lyrics, he makes up gibberish and turns that into an act. In other words, we do hear the Tramp sing but still not talk. More palatable to audiences, as Chaplin must have reasoned. He also wrote the music, and the film’s theme, which later became known as ”Smile”, is one of his most memorable. The story is a satire on modern society and the effect technology has on the simple working man, along with the devastating impact of the Depression. The film moves from the factory to streets and the prison; there’s great scenes and slapstick waiting all the time. The assembly line sequences are hilarious and incredibly well staged, a meticulous choreography that is just amazing to behold, ably supported by great production design that gives the factory a look of modernization and oppression. The way the Tramp is mistaken for a labor agitator, and his cocaine-fueled mishap at the prison, are other terrific examples of the director’s creativity.
Eventually the Tramp meets a girl; this was Goddard’s first major role and her breakthrough. She would go on to marry Chaplin and is wonderful as the Gamine. Their loveliest scene together is the film’s very last and has become iconic, as they walk down a road at dawn.
This was the first time that Chaplin made a film that was so clearly political, and it did generate debate over its depiction of industrialization. Perhaps it was more than fitting that its title would inspire a now-classic French cultural magazine, Les Temps modernes, initially run by Jean-Paul Sartre. The themes of Modern Times go very nicely with Sartre’s existentialism.
Modern Times 1936-U.S. Part Silent. 89 min. B/W. Produced, written, directed and music by Charlie Chaplin. Cast: Charlie Chaplin (The Tramp), Paulette Goddard (Ellen Peterson), Henry Bergman (Café Proprietor), Chester Conklin, Stanley ”Tiny” Sandford.
Trivia: Gloria DeHaven can be seen in a small role. Chaplin was sued by a German film studio for the obvious similarities with the French classic À Nous la Liberté (1931) and settled out of court.
Last word: “I was riding in my car one day and saw a mass of people coming out of a factory, punching time clocks, and was overwhelmed with the knowledge that the theme note of modern times is mass production. I wondered what would happen to the progress of the mechanical age if one person decided to act like a bull in a china shop.” (Chaplin, TCM)