When Modern Times was made in 1936, talkies were the rage, Charlie Chaplin was a worldwide sensation who toured the world several times over, and his Little Tramp changed the face of comedy, theatrics, mime, clowning, and culture. But after what he saw was the post-industrial wasteland created by machinery, dictatorships, unemployment, poverty, drugs, and a rising, encroaching, terrifying extremism beginning to grip the world, he had only one solution:
Take a year to film the final Little Tramp film, make him talk, and try to channel and process the anxieties everyone was feeling into his character for one final perfect performance.
Of course, the original script was scrapped, but the themes and interpretation of the world through Chaplin’s lens “(that survives) as a commentary on human survival in the industrial, economic, and social circumstances of the 20th – and perhaps the 21st – century” was perfect (Robinson / Schneider).
I was admittedly not too enthusiastic about watching this movie. When I think of what I thought I knew about Charlie Chaplin movies, I think silly nonsense.
I was wrong. Made in 1936, this movie has held up remarkably well and continues to be relevant today. One of the things I enjoyed the most about this movie was how creative Chaplin was using available technology. Without modern special effects, this movie has an amazing roller skating sequence, a “modern” feeding machine, and even a sequence when a giant machine pulls a character through.
The movie does indeed contain that slapstick comedy that Chaplin is well known for but in measured amounts. Interspersed between these bits is a thoughtful and powerful social and political commentary.
This movie blew my expectations out of the water. Chaplin writes, directs, acts and wrote and performed the music in this movie. It is impossible to watch this movie without smiling and being thoroughly entertained. I can only imagine the reaction that audiences had at the very end of the movie when Charlie suddenly breaks into song and dance- hearing his voice for the first time on film!
Especially sentimental (but not too saccharine) is the tramp’s relationship with the gamine. As they march off into the future in the ending scene, unsure of whether they will succeed or meet with defeat in life, you can not help cheering them on wholeheartedly.
With Modern Times, I expected infantile slapstick nonsense that was prevalent in many early 20th century comedies. What I got in Modern Times, however, was a thoughtful social, political, and humanistic statement about our lives in the modern era – and there is nothing like the feeling of being blown away when your expectations start so low.
This film is absolute genius, and it is a shame that every instance that I have ever seen of it replays the same tired, old clown tropes that have become cliche as a result of this film’s first performing it. Yes, it is the original, but the replay after replay has made it so old that my reluctance was built on a lifetime of seeing the scenes out of context. What makes it so genius is the message – and Chaplin’s brilliant, astute, and accessible delivery makes the film as relevant to our kid as much as our own adult graduate-degree level social criticism and theory lenses. Frankly, I have never seen a film as touching, meaningful, and masterful that relies so heavily on the visual form. As a guy that prefers well-written scripts over everything else, to ride this film (that originally did have a script until it was ultimately canned by Chaplin with good reason) without any dialogue whatsoever, and to see the electric passion so effortlessly evident in the eyes of his Little Tramp and Paulette Goddard’s Gamin without exchanging a word as they weave in and out of an anarchist paradise, one immediately learns how beautiful life can really be when you care about the right things.
A masterpiece whose virtues I will never stop extolling. Modern Times is truly a perfect film which all others can only aspire to.