Modern Times (1936)
Modern Times (1936)

Genre: Slapstick and Romantic Comedy Running Time: 1 hr. 27 min.

Release Date: February 21st, 1936 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Charles Chaplin Actors: Charles Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman, Stanley Sandford, Chester Conklin, Stanley Blystone

 


 

“M

odern Times” is one of Charlie Chaplin’s most recognized and beloved features, centering once again on the exploits of the iconic, perfectly silhouetted “Little Tramp” persona. This time, he’s used for political commentary on the industrialized world, a comically futuristic, stark contrast to the commonplace Great Depression modi vivendi from a few years earlier. Although it was made in 1936 when talkies were well underway, Chaplin abandoned his ideas for using spoken dialogue, realizing that the universal appeal of the Tramp might be lost with intrusive words. “Modern Times” does include singing, however, with a quick, nonsensical song crooned by Chaplin himself, along with a beautiful score featuring a memorable romance theme, which had words added later for reuse by many other musicians and movies.

An average factory worker (Charles Chaplin) at the Electro Steel Corporation toils tirelessly and monotonously over his conveyor belt assembly line, as the boss reclines in his comfortable chair, smokes a cigar, and watches over the work floor with “Big Brother” computer screens. It proves too much for the diminutive fellow’s fragile figure, sending him into a nervous breakdown, which involves squirting oil into the faces of his coworkers, employer, and the cops as they drag him away to jail. In another part of town, a young woman (Paulette Goddard as “A Gamin”) forages for food for her hungry siblings and her out-of-work father. It’s not long before the girl is combing the streets, desperately seeking a means to survive.

Later, the mustached itinerant is released from his cell for doing a good deed, but decides that life is simpler behind bars, especially with the rioting unemployed, dangerous strikes, and toughness of manual labor. As he looks for ways to get arrested again, he encounters the gamin, strikes up a pleasant companionship, and settles on earning money the right way, to provide for his newfound family. From work as a night watchman to a singing waiter, the tramp and the gamin discover that nothing is meant to be easy, but that they should also never give up.

The story is simple, sweet, and incomparably beautiful. It’s a condemnation of newfangled machinery, demonstrating hilarious contraptions to eliminate the use of human workers, and an advocate for the necessity of employment, showcasing the anxieties of job action, manager intolerance, and the horrors of vagrancy. The exquisiteness lies in the perseverance of the two lead characters, always struggling to move forward even when the world seems to push back against them. With pantomime and plenty of slapstick, the mood is always lighthearted – never quite realizing the dreary realities – and careful to entertain with sparse heartbreak and ample laughs. The artistry is essentially perfect.

Just about every scene in “Modern Times” is famous: Chaplin passing through the gears of an impossibly large machine; his repeated attempts to land back in the slammer; a precarious roller-skating session in a department store; a disastrous roast duck tableside delivery; and an arm-in-arm walk into the sunset are but a few of the most famous sequences. Indeed, the story is little more than a visual series of expertly timed, masterfully choreographed comedic skits. Although it was unjustly skipped over by the Academy Awards, it has an undeniable lasting power, a message that is just as poignant and relevant as when it was made, and delightful humor that transcends the ages – all of which aid “Modern Times” in becoming frequently considered one of the greatest movies ever made.

– Mike Massie

  • 10/10