Monday, December 30, 2013


One of the first movies I bought on DVD was Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times. I have had it for years, but it seems like I only see the movie when it was on TCM. It recently was on TCM on a Sunday night, and even though I did not really want to watch a movie, I could not turn this monumental film off. I also was a big fan of Charlie Chaplin, and it goes without saying that I enjoy everything he ever did. However, watching this time (probably the 4th time) I noticed how extremely beautiful Paulette Goddard. It almost took my breath away at times.

Modern Times portrays Chaplin as a factory worker employed on an assembly line. After being subjected to such indignities as being force-fed by a "modern" feeding machine and an accelerating assembly line where he screws nuts at an ever-increasing rate onto pieces of machinery, he suffers a nervous breakdown and runs amok, throwing the factory into chaos. He is sent to a hospital. Following his recovery, the now unemployed factory worker is mistakenly arrested as an instigator in a Communist demonstration. In jail, he accidentally ingests smuggled cocaine, mistaking it for salt. In his subsequent delirium, he stumbles upon a jailbreak and knocks out the convicts. He is hailed a hero and is released.

Outside the jail, he applies for a new job but leaves after causing an accident. He runs into an orphaned gamine girl (Paulette Goddard), who is fleeing the police after stealing a loaf of bread. To save the girl, he tells police that he is the thief and ought to be arrested. A witness reveals his deception and he is freed. To get arrested again, he eats an enormous amount of food at a cafeteria without paying. He meets up with the girl in the paddy wagon, which crashes, and the girl convinces the reluctant factory worker to escape with her. Dreaming of a better life, he gets a job as a night watchman at a department store, sneaks the girl into the store, and even lets burglars have some food. Waking up the next morning in a pile of clothes, he is arrested once more.

Ten days later, the girl takes him to a new home – a run-down shack that she admits "isn't Buckingham Palace" but will do. The next morning, the factory worker reads about a new factory and lands a job there. He gets his boss trapped in machinery, but manages to extricate him. The other workers decide to go on strike. Accidentally paddling a brick into a policeman, he is arrested again. Two weeks later, he is released and learns that the girl is a café dancer. She tries to get him a job as a singer and a waiter. At his new job, however, he finds it difficult to tell the difference between the "in" and "out" doors to the kitchen, or to successfully deliver a roast duck to table through a busy dance floor. During his floor show, he loses a cuff that bears the lyrics of his song, but he rescues his act by improvising the story using an amalgam of word play, words in (or made up of word parts from) multiple languages and mock sentence structure while pantomiming. His act proves a hit. When police arrive to arrest the girl for her earlier escape, they escape again. Finally, we see them walking down a road at dawn, towards an uncertain but hopeful future.

Chaplin was very bold to produce a silent film in 1936. He was the last hold out to sound, and the silence amazingly works in Modern Times. Chaplin began preparing the film in 1934 as his first "talkie", and went as far as writing a dialogue script and experimenting with some sound scenes. However, he soon abandoned these attempts and reverted to a silent format with synchronized sound effects. The dialogue experiments confirmed his long-standing conviction that the universal appeal of the Tramp would be lost if the character ever spoke on screen. Most of the film was shot at "silent speed", 18 frames per second, which when projected at "sound speed", 24 frames per second, made the slapstick action appear even more frenetic. Available prints of the film now correct this. The duration of filming was long, beginning on October 11, 1934 and ending on August 30, 1935

Modern Times is often hailed as one of Chaplin's greatest films. I agree it is a masterpiece, but Chaplin produced so many masterpieces, it is hard to say. I probably prefer City Lights (1931) and Limelight (1952), but Modern Times is one of the greatest films of the era. Chaplin could say in 81 minutes of silence more than some of the movie epics could say with hours of sound. The movie was highly profitable, and I would recommend this film to someone who does not even like silent movies. The silence is golden in the film, and it adds to its greatness...


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