I am a big admirer of Charlie Chaplin. Just so you are warned up front. Readers of my previous two Chaplin reviews will know that, I am sure. He is also my favorite of the three big comedians of silent cinema (the others being Keaton and Lloyd) and of a stature so iconic that the silhouette is a giveaway for anybody over the age of ten. Well, when I was ten for sure. One of the dedicated and very popular TV Channels for children (Ramasjang) in Denmark still puts on an occasional Chaplin short. There is no two ways about that, Chaplin is big.
“Modern Times” was his last film with his tramp character. 22 years of service finally ended in style. But how do you take a hero of the silent cinema into the age of the talkie, far far away from the realm he used to prowl? Well, tricky tricky. Chaplin solved this problem in a number of ways.
First of all he admitted that the tramp is a silent character. He exists in a silent world where actions are broken by intertitles, the camera runs a bit too slow (projecting becomes a bit too fast) and feelings are commuted through mimics and facial expressions. The advent of talking pictures cannot change that. That is who he is. However the stage on which he acts can change. Sound can be integrated as part of the stage. Chaplin began that process in “City Lights” with mumblings and sound effects and in “Modern Times” that instrument is refined into audible voices coming out of radios, intercoms and very futuristic wide screens. The actors are silent characters in a noisy world. Not quite unlike the technique used in “The Artist”. Somebody certainly saw “Modern Times”.
The second fix is to bring the tramp up to date. This is now the depression era, or post-depression era, with unemployment, poverty and inequality running rampant. But also an age with a revolution in automation making the worker another pin in the wheel or even obsolete. In any case reducing the working population to even deeper lows. It is in this environment the tramp maneuvers as a member of this destitute class in what was Chaplin’s strongest social commentary.
This is both the strength and the weakness of “Modern Times”. Humor has always been a strong instrument to convey serious or brutal messages. A good example is “Dr. Strangelove or how I learned to love the bomb”. In that way Chaplin is able to tell an important story that sinks in where a more direct and serious approach would just have been rejected by the viewer. It is clever, Chaplin did it again in “The Dictator” and it is a scandal that that one is not on the List!
But depression, social injustice and automation are not easy subjects, not even for Chaplin and the tramp and in the process some of the magic that elevated “City Lights” into a realm beyond simple comedy is lost. It is just not as endearing. Only near the end where the tramp and the gamine girl (the beautiful Paulette Goddard ) dream of getting a home and finally get a job as singing and dancing waiters does it display an approximation of the sensitivity that made “City Lights” so special. Especially because of the bittersweet end to that.
Not that this is not funny. It is. The feeding machine scene is probably the funniest Chaplin ever did and it is hilarious (and very symbolic) when he is being eaten by the big machines, essentially becoming a part of the machine. I have seen “Modern Times” many times by now and some of the jokes are starting to get a bit old on me, so I look for that extra dimension and in the middle part we lose both the sensitivity and to some extent the fun, so this part seems to drag out a bit. I am loath to admit it because I love Chaplin so much, but that part was actually a bit boring. Luckily the end is fantastic and we get it all. Fun, romance, sensitivity, speed and tons of physical comedy. That saves the movie and we end on a high note.
The end sequence also features the only words the tramp ever uttered on the white screen and true to form they do not make any sense at all. The tramp has to sing a song in the restaurant as part of his trial employment, but the lyrics, written down on his cuff, are lost in the hubbub so he invents his own song. It is a very suggestive song, naughty maybe and charming, but we only catch a French or Italian word now and then so the lyrics are a blur. If the tramp should ever speak this is certainly what it should sound like. Perfectly.
“City Lights” is still my favorite Chaplin film, but “Modern times” may be the more important one. Who else could pull this off than Charles Chaplin? The tramp made his point.