Thursday, June 11, 2009

1936: Modern Times (Charles Chaplin)

Released: February 5, 1936

Director: Charles Chaplin; Screenplay: Charles Chaplin; Cinematography: Ira H. Morgan, Roland Totheroh; Studio: United Artists; Producer: Charles Chaplin

Cast: Charles Chaplin (A Factory Worker/ The Tramp), Paulette Goddard (A Gamine), Henry Bergman (Café Proprietor), Stanley Sandford (Big Bill), Chester Conklin (Mechanic), Hank Mann (Burglar), Stanley Blystone (Gamine’s Father), Allan Garcia (President of the Electro Steel Corp.)

As difficult as it has been picking a favorite or best film for each year, I think I might have found something even tougher: how about trying to pick the funniest scene from this Charlie Chaplin masterpiece. Is it the opening factory sequence, in which The Tramp is trying desperately, and unsuccessfully, to keep pace with the quickening assembly line? Or how about the legendary feeding machine scene which has The Tramp being used as the guinea pig to test a new invention that would do away with the lunch break and allow workers to stay on the line while having their meal? Could it be The Tramp innocently picking up a red flag that falls off the back of a truck and then being mistaken for the leader of a communist rally? Or maybe when The Tramp is eating lunch in jail, salts his food, inadvertently gets hopped up on cocaine, and foils an attempted jail break? It’s a staggering prospect trying to pick from such classic moments in film history – and those listed above are all scenes that take place within the first thirty minutes of the film! There are many other unforgettable sequences throughout. There is not a dull moment in Modern Times and I never hesitate in declaring it to be my favorite of Chaplin’s career.

There are other Chaplin films that I adore – City Lights being chief among them – but it is Modern Times that continually reminds me how brilliant the man was as a writer and director, let alone as a performer. The scenes that I described above, and the others that follow throughout the course of the film, are so well-developed and entertaining that they could honestly work as stand-alone shorts. They are hilarious by themselves, needing no introduction or development from other sections of the movie. Yet, Chaplin is skillful enough as a director to piece these skits together into a full-length feature that flows seamlessly.

The plot is simple, consisting of a number of settings that serve to put The Little Tramp into situations that allow Chaplin to work his magic. The Tramp is a worker on an assembly line, doing nothing but tightening bolts at an ever-increasing pace. While there, he is used as the subject in testing the newly invented feeding machine, with hilarious and disastrous results. After wreaking havoc in the factory and being sent to a mental institution, he is fired and then becomes swept up in events that he continually wanders into. These include things like a communist march, jail breaks, burglaries, and trying to come to terms with the squalid conditions that a majority of people are living in during the 1930s. Along the way The Tramp befriends a young orphan girl, the Gamin (Paulette Goddard), and becomes determined to find a job in order to provide a decent home for the two of them.

The tales concerning how the film was originally conceived and how production ultimately proceeded are interesting and quite relevant to understanding the film. Legend has it that Chaplin originally intended for this to be his introduction to the talkies, a trend that he had resisted since their introduction. He then supposedly came to the conclusion that The Tramp character would lose much of its appeal if he were to begin speaking in the films, and so the idea was abandoned. Chaplin instead decided to proceed in creating a silent film, but adding sound effects and a few quick lines of dialogue from minor characters. And even this dialogue sounds very mechanical or filtered – such as coming from a record player or from the steel tycoon’s video screen. I don’t know that I would go so far as to say that The Tramp would have lost effectiveness with dialogue, but I do know that dialogue is completely unnecessary in this movie. Chaplin made the right decision in sticking to what he believed in and doing what he did better than anyone else.

I also cannot comment on the veracity of Chaplin having originally conceived of the film as a talkie, but it makes sense when considering the themes of the film. The Tramp is a man being forced into an increasingly modernizing society which he is clearly uneasy in. It mirrors the relationship between Chaplin and the advances being made in the motion picture industry. Chaplin did not feel comfortable moving his popular on-screen persona into the sound era, just as The Tramp himself was uncomfortable in a factory setting or dealing with technological advances. So these tales make perfect sense when you consider that the struggle of The Tramp to survive in “modern times” does mirror the effort by Chaplin to maintain his artistic visions in the face of a changing industry. The social commentary is laid on thick, but never reaches the point of being overbearing. Everything is tongue in cheek, as if Chaplin himself recognizes that progress itself is not inherently bad, but that there are downsides to everything.

Rather than drag things on to an unnecessary length, I’m going to acknowledge the fact that just as words would have been superfluous in the film, so too are they in commenting on it. No writing (particularly mine) can do it justice or properly describe how delightful a film it is. No matter how much I expound on the hilarity of when The Tramp salts his food with cocaine, it won’t fully sink in until you see him smiling with white powder stuck in his mustache. The description of the feeding machine might sound downright silly, but once you see Chaplin’s moves and facial expressions it’s impossible not to laugh. These moments just have to be experienced. I’m guessing that the folks that take the time to read this blog and comment have far more familiarity with Chaplin and this film than I do, but anyone who reads this and hasn’t seen Modern Times is in for an amazing event. And even for those that have seen it, it never hurts to go back and be reminded of what a truly great film is.

Modern Times
may not be my favorite film that I’ve reviewed over the short life of this Year’s Best series (I love Trouble in Paradise too much to make that assertion), but I don’t think I’m exaggerating in declaring it to be the most essential. Not only is it a cornerstone in the history of cinema, but Chaplin transcends just film. He is a cultural icon and this movie has it all -- entertainment, a message, and historical value. It is a significant document of an era.

Rating: 10/10

Other Contenders for 1936:
Really no competition as far as picking the best of 1936, but there are a few others from this year that I enjoy. Humphrey Bogart is great as fugitive gangster Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest. After the Thin Man is not on the same level as the first installment of the series, but it’s still entertaining. A lot of the comedies of this year are a little to “screwy” for my tastes, but Powell and Loy are also very good in Libeled Lady.


  1. Dave, you get no argument from on this being the best film of 1936! As I read your review, I began laughing, not at your writing, but at the scenes you were describing so eloquently, I was visualizing them in my head. The film is pure genius, one his many masterworks! A superb choice and some excellent background information on the film. Finally, Paulette Goddard, so beautiful!!!!

    Other greats film from that year for me includes Libeled Lady, My Man Godfrey, The Petrified Forest, Fritz Lang’ s Fury and the Astaire- Rogers musical Swing Time. Coincidently, I recently recorded two other films from 1936 that I have not watched yet (Mr. Deed Goes to Town and These Three), so the list could change.

  2. Though not my favourite Chaplin movie - that would be Gold Rush - Modern Times would nonetheless rank quite close. An incredible satire indeed, in the garb of farcical slapstick - like most of his movies were. The industrialization process - how machines slowly came to be a boon (increase production) and bane (downsize work force), quite strangely, forms the idea for the current movies - the kind of topic that only a Chaplin could perhaps have conceptualized.

    You made a great point about the movie in a way being an ironical reflection of the great man himself. Thats one juxtaposition that I'm not going to forget. My guess would be it was deliberate on his front.

    Chaplin could really make people crawl on the floor laughing, and at the same time feel a hard pinch for having laughed at something that ought to have caused pain, sorrow, distress and pathos. That kind of stuff makes me wonder what a giant Chaplin was - a complete antithesis to his physical stature. At the end all I can feel is awe - not just because of the kind of versatile genius he was, but also as to how the hell can a man be in possession of so much social awakening, empathy for fellow human beings, humour, wit and the ability to laugh at oneself - all at the same time!

  3. John - A lot of these moments bring a smile to my face just thinking about them too! The "nose powder" scene is probably my favorite. I'm still amazed that the censors let him include that in the film.

    Shubhajit - Great observation on the fact that in a lot of cases these are things that are deadly serious. It's a testament to Chaplin that it never feels patronizing... like he's just providing a way to deal with the situation without going completely crazy.

  4. David Robinson's biography, if I remember right, has an excerpt from the aborted script for Modern Times, which Chaplin abandoned because the dialogue was coming out too whimsical for a tramp. The feeding machine is definitely the best bit, especially its punchline ("It just isn't practical"). In light of Shubhajit's comments, do you notice how little real working-class comedy there is in theaters today compared to the "Golden Age?"

    I'm inclined to agree with you on this one, Dave, but not before putting in a word for Fury, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and a more guilty pleasure, Things to Come.

  5. Samuel - I have the Robinson bio sitting with a group of books that are waiting to be read... similar to the stacks of DVDs I have waiting to be watched! I'm sure I'll get to them all eventually.

    On your other choices, Fury was one that I felt certain I would love the first time I watched it but it was just OK for me.

  6. My Favorite Film of 1936: MODERN TIMES (Chaplin)


    Une Partie de Campagne (Renoir)
    Mr. Thank You (Shimizu)
    My Man Godfrey (La Cava)
    Osaka Elegy (Mizoguchi)
    Rembrandt (Korda)
    Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Capra)
    Swing Time (Stevens)
    Show Boat (Whale)

    There is little question Dave, that your #1 choice is the Best Film of 1936, an assertion that is enthusiastically corroborated by John and others above. And I couldn't agree more with Samuel Wilson in referencing one of the greatest of all film volumes, Robinson's essential biography. Walter Kehr's "The Silent Clowns" is also a benchmark here. MODERN TIMES is my #2 Chaplin behind CITY LIGHTS, but it's a close call. Since you have begun on this fabulous adventure, Dave, I would dare say that 1936 is the best year in film easily to this point. Of course 1939 as expected will probably edge it out, and will a few others to come. But my own runners-up list is longer than I have ever submitted, but it's simple unavoidable. Renoir's masterpiece in particular, would have been #1 in almost any other year, except one headed up by this Chaplin masterwork, which as you rightly contend is so great it's almost impossible to describe.

    But describe it you have, and again in most captivating and persuasive terms. (not that anyone here needs to be persuaded! ha!) But your readers here are excited, and well they should be. Your historical and analytical account is again flawless.

    To answer your question, yes it is almost impossible to nab a single scene as the greatest in this film, but forced to vote I would go with the opening assembly line segment.

    And the only thing I will add to your review that I find must be added is the use of sound here (Chaplin began this as a silent) and particularly the emotional song "Smile" which gloriously brings to this film a tearful resonance and layer of depth that only the most universal works of cinema can rightfully exude. The scene midway with Chaplin and Godard, at the house, which introduces this great theme/song (written of course by Chaplin himself) is one of the truly great moments in the entire history of the cinema. It's a real weepie.

  7. Thanks, Sam... on a barely related note, the way I actually first fell in love with the song "Smile" was before I was all that into film. It was actually from a collection of Eric Clapton bootlegs from the 70s! Clapton included it in his acoustic sets of the times.

    You're right about 1939... there might be a short delay there as I revisit some of the classics. There is a "clubhouse leader" for 39 at the moment, but I haven't completely decided yet myself.

  8. Dave - Interesting you mention falling in love with the song "Smile" with the Clapton boot. Similarly, the first time I heard the song, was long before I ever saw a Chaplin feature. It was a version done by a group called The Letterman back in the 1960's. I always looked at who wrote the songs and it, of course, had Chaplin's name and I was naively shocked having no idea at that time that Chaplin wrote music.

  9. That's pretty much how I found out Chaplin wrote it as well, John! I was familiar with the song, but realized that I didn't have the slightest idea who actually wrote it. Then when I saw that it was Chaplin, I figured it had to be a different "Smile" than the one I was looking for. But, obviously, they are one and the same.

  10. Modern Times is a great pick, a classic film, and maybe the best of 1936. But as I've always preferred City Lights and The Gold Rush, I don't feel quite comfortable picking it. At any rate I've only seen it once, and repeat viewings might raise it in my estimation. I do like Paulette Goddard...

    My favorite film of 1936 would probably be the excellent Dodsworth, with great direction by William Wyler and a poignant performance by Walter Huston. It's been somewhat overlooked in the years since '36 but unfairly, I think.