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Modern Times (1936)

December 19th, 2006 · No Comments


With a title card promising “A story of industry, of individual enterprise, humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness,” we’re introduced to a Factory Worker (Charlie Chaplin) at the Electro Steel Corp. His job is to tighten bolts on an endless assembly line.

Work has left him with a nervous tick, which causes him to knock over his co-worker’s soup, and to chase after a woman to tighten the buttons on her blouse. The Factory Worker goes nuts and falls into the assembly line, where he’s memorably dragged through the wheels, gears and cogs of the great machine. He’s then hustled away by the men in white suits, unsuited for the work force.

Now wearing that familiar small hat, tight coat and baggy pants, Chaplin is instructed to take it easy and avoid excitement. This proves impossible on streets choked with massive unemployment and discontent. Chaplin picks up a red flag that’s fallen off a truck and finds himself in front of a demonstration by Communist protestors. The police mistake him for the lead agitator and haul him off to jail.


Meanwhile, a Gamin (Paulette Goddard) – “a child of the waterfront who refuses to go hungry” – steals bananas from a freighter, throwing some to the other hungry kids on the dock. She returns home to share the food with her motherless sisters and unemployed father.

In jail, Chaplin unwittingly foils a jailbreak and saves the life of the sheriff, who grants him a pardon. But our hero is afraid of the outside world. He asks “Can’t I stay a little longer? I’m so happy here.” Alone and hungry on the streets, he’s determined to be sent back to jail. That changes when he crosses paths with the Gamin. He becomes smitten with the lovely homeless girl, and sets out to get a home for the two of them, “Even if I have to work for it!”

Written, produced and directed by Charlie Chaplin – who also labored to compose the brilliant musical score – Modern Times was his follow-up to City Lights. We get to hear Chaplin’s actual voice singing gibberish at one point, and along with sound effects, the film is not entirely silent, but this was Chaplin’s final foray in pantomime. The AFI recently ranked it #81 on their list of 100 greatest American movies of all time.


Capitalism, Communism, unions, strikes. These issues belong to America of the early 1930s as opposed to now. True, the great machine gobbling up the working man is still relevant, but I found myself enjoying this less than City Lights. Paulette Goddard (Chaplin’s wife and kindred spirit at the time) is magnificent, as is Chaplin, and there are a number of wildly inventive, beautifully choreographed comic sequences that do make this a classic.

After twenty minutes devoted to the monotony of the factory, the story perks up after the Tramp is introduced, and Chaplin & Goddard wander the city as outcasts of society. The highlight finds Chaplin getting a job as the night watchman at a department store and sneaking Goddard in, where they stuff themselves on cake, and rollerskate through the toy department. Chaplin’s struggle with a ramshackle cabin Goddard has found also made me laugh.

I found it funny how Chaplin just wants to be thrown back in jail – where he can escape the insanity of the world – but finds that easier said than done. The climactic Red Moon Café sequence – where Chaplin tries to keep a job as a singing waiter by singing French-sounding gibberish – is great, and the final scene, where Chaplin tells a despondent Goddard to “Never say die” and walks arm in arm into the sunset with her, is a beautiful ending.


Tags: Golden Age of Hollywood · Silent

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