[Chris Edwards, who writes extensively about silent films on his blog, Silent Volume, has written the following review of Modern Times. Anyone else wishing to have their marathon reviews published on Row Three may kindly send them my way for consideration. To see the full programme click on the Dirty Thirties header image above.]
Charlie Chaplin was the Tramp in almost all his films, so all his films, in some way, dealt with want. His first Depression-era movie, City Lights (1931), was a melodrama; a love story that depended on the poverty of its two leads to set up the gags. It could have been set in 1900 as easily as 1931. But his second, Modern Times (1936) does not present a poor man so much as a poor society, and the gags rely not on the Tramp’s poverty, but on the root cause of everyone else’s.
Chaplin blamed mechanization. He wasn’t a Luddite; he just felt that efficiency, if made an end unto itself, would place the machine above the worker. So it is in Modern Times. The Tramp is now A Factory Worker—the ‘nut tightener’ on a far-too-rapid assembly line, wielding a pair of wrenches on an ever-continuing row of metal plates. The plates pass him, then two other workers, then disappear into a tunnel. When his break begins, he walks away, still jerking with the same motions as before, trying to tighten anything nut-like around him, including the buttons on a woman’s blouse.
Audiences must have felt uneasy seeing the Tramp—then the most famous character in the world—so close to collapse. He would have reminded them of simpler and happier times. In fact, the whole film would have. It’s a (mostly) silent movie produced well into the sound era, and it’s loaded with references to silent comedy and action pictures. But modernity perverts it all.
The Tramp, who once found the most inventive ways to steal a snack, is now strapped into a chair before a revolving set of dinner plates and metal arms that stuff processed food down his throat. He dangles from a huge hook, like Douglas Fairbanks brandishing his sword, only now it’s an oilcan. He runs from a cop, but stops to punch his timecard. He ends up in a mental hospital.
He gets out. Only steps from the hospital, the Tramp sees a red flag fall off the back of a pickup truck. He picks up the flag and inadvertently triggers a Communist march, then a police crackdown, followed by his incarceration.
Back on the street, the Tramp collides with a young woman (Paulette Goddard), escaping a bakery with her stolen dinner. Goddard is ‘The Gamin’ (gamine, or street urchin); in this case, the eldest sister of a family of girls, without a mother when the movie begins and without a father after a food riot leaves him shot. The Gamin is swift, smart and wickedly sexy, but she’s too desperate to avoid getting caught. Would you like to know more…?