It would be tempting to look at the newly restored print of Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times and say that the 1936 film is as relevant now as it was then. That Chaplin's enduring image of a man literally caught in the wheels of industry remains an apt metaphor for the common man today. And it's always tempting to simply declare Chaplin ahead of his time. But after mulling it over awhile it just doesn't feel right. Modern Times is very much about 1936, and the things that make it feel dated also make it worth a fresh look.
Talkies had been the norm for years when Chaplin shot Modern Times, yet he chose to make it essentially a silent film - his last - with voices used only as special effects including a scene where he vamps a song in Italian gibberish, the first time movie goers heard the voice of the most famous actor in the world. The film is basically a string of four set pieces - The Little Tramp in a factory, a prison, a department store and a restaurant - with Chaplin providing the physical comedy each location demands, plus the added touches of inspiration that earned him his genius. In the case of the factory set, an oddly beautiful art deco monstrosity, it introduced the assembly line into the pantheon of comedy. Yet these remain bits, and we would not easily forgive a modern film that pursued set pieces at the expense of a narrative the way Modern Times does. The story thread involves The Little Tramp hooking up with an impossibly lovely street waif, played by Chaplinís real life interest Paulette Goddard, and the two casting their lot together in a largely chaste and undefined relationship.
What really drives Modern Times and lingers long afterwards is the reality of the Great Depression. We seem to have forgotten there was a time when work was not about personal fulfillment but about survival, and holding even the lowliest job was the stuff of high stakes. It was a time of bad luck and living by your wits, and Chaplin was uniquely skilled at both. There is no better scene in the movie than when The Little Tramp sees a warning flag fall off the back of a lumber truck, picks it up and waves it at the driver the very moment a workers rally rounds the corner and accidentally turns him into a communist leader. As political as Chaplin may have been, this is less a political comment then it is a wonderful bit of physical comedy. The Tramp and his Waif are not communists, socialists or even populists. They are unwitting anarchists who try, but are simply unable to live by the rules.
Broke and homeless yet again, they walk into the sunset for parts unknown, as Chaplin's bittersweet original song "Smile" plays on the soundtrack. It's the last scene in the film, the last appearance ever of The Little Tramp, and among the most memorable clips from Chaplin's career. But it was not the original ending. Chaplin had a more tragic finale in mind in which the two misfits were forever separated. He opted to give the people of 1936 a ray of hope against the odds. And Modern Times is the better for it.
© 2004 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 12/17/03
USA - 1936