Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Modern Times (Review)

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Company: United Artists

Year: 1936

Country: USA

Work is hell, but this movie is bliss.

To say that Charlie Chaplin was one of the most famous actors who ever lived is an understatement. Chaplin was also the director, screenwriter, editor, producer and composer of all of his films. Chaplin's comedic films managed to and still continue to entertain due to their timeless subjects. Chaplin's most famous creation, the character of the Little Tramp, a bumbling vagrant with a childlike, goodhearted personality, is one of cinema's most recognizable figures. The Tramp does his best to appear like a gentlemen, despite his ill fitting clothes, and commonly falls victim to circumstance and consequence. Arguably, the most acclaimed films the Tramp starred in are The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1928), City Lights (1931), and Modern Times (1936). 

Modern Times is notable for a few reasons. It was the last of Chaplin's major films to feature the Tramp character, his first true "talkie", and was inspired by working conditions during the Great Depression. Modern Times follows the misadventures of the Tramp who is a factory worker on an assembly line. After enduring many grueling hours tightening bolts, being watched by his unsympathetic boss, and being used as guinea pig for the Bellows Automatic Feeding Machine (which badly malfunctions), the Tramp undergoes a major nervous breakdown. He gets sucked into the large gears of a machine and runs amok in the factory, only to be taken away by the medical ward. Once cured, the Tramp finds himself in various compromising conditions (being mistaken for a communist leader, getting sent to jail, and accidentally ingesting smuggled cocaine) before running into an orphaned gamine girl played by Paulette Goddard. The two then decide to travel together while avoiding the law and attempting to find steady jobs. Despite that the Tramp and the Gamine are constantly on the move and face many challenges, they remain cheerful, hopeful that, if they work hard enough, they can achieve a successful life together.

The Tramp quickly discovers that not all technology is practical... 

Besides being funny, this movie also manages to convey a great deal of social commentary. Modern Times's unflattering portrayal of the treatment of industrial workers apparently caused some controversy when the film was initially released. In the opening of Modern Times, the workers are seen flooding into the factory's gates, likened to a flock of a sheep, which reflects the workers' lose of self identity as they monotonously repeat the same tasks over and over. On the other hand, the factory's boss is shown to be completely dismissive of the welfare of his workers, being more concerned about how efficiently the factory runs and completing his crossword puzzles. Indeed, the factory's impressive machines, the exploitation of the workers, and the authoritarian mannerisms of the boss seem to recall the allegorical German film Metropolis (1927). The Tramp's playful antics keep this film from becoming too dire, however. When the Tramp goes on his crazy rampage in the factory, Chaplin plays the role very gleefully, obviously taking delight in wrecking all the machines on the set and squirting oil in the eyes of other factory employes.  (Chaplin grew up as a poor child in the slums of England, so he had reasons to poke fun at industry and people in positions of higher power.)

The looming presence of the Tramp's boss and the conditions he endures at work are certainly still relatable today. 

Paulette Goddard's performance as the orphaned waif is just as endearing as Chaplin's acting. A lovable street urchin, the Gamine is very hardworking and resourceful. First appearing about twenty minutes into the film, Goddard immediately catches the audience's attention while she is stealing bananas on a boat. She throws them to other street childern, carrying a knife in her mouth. She is one of the homeless people in this film who are portrayed sympathetically. Her family are victims of the broken wage system during the 1930s. They only steal because they need to do so in order to survive. The Gamine's scenes range from tragic (involving the death of her father and separation from her sisters) to whimsically lighthearted (when she and the Tramp try to live like a middle class family in a ramshackle house; or when she frolics in the toy display in an apartment store).  

Fun Fact: While Goddard was in Modern Times she was dating Chaplin and later would become his third wife.

Modern Times also manages to be very touching and sweet, but never overly so that it comes off as saccharine or too idealistic. Chaplin's innocent, cheerful portrayal of the Tramp manages to make otherwise serious scenes easier to swallow (and just plain fun). The faith that the Tramp and the Gamine put in one another is rather touching. The Gamine is forever loyal to the Tramp because he helped her escape the police. She puts up with his constant mistakes, loss of jobs, and frequent arrests. Likewise, the Tramp is always there to cheer up the Gamine when she most needs it. This film sends out a wonderful message that certainly spoke out to people during the Great Depression, and still does today. Life can be cruel and seemingly miserable. But as long as we keep our spirits up and continue trying, we can continue to move on.

Even in the midsts of depression, there is still hope.

Very few bad things can be said about this film. Although, the plot of Modern Times may seem simplistic by today's standards, its themes are universal and it isn't lined with any unnecessary frills. Modern Times is far more of a silent film than it is a 'talkie', but Chaplin's score and cinematography do a fine job of delivering emotional resonance and believability. Certain filmmakers today could learn a lot from the cheerful, confident direction of Chaplin's films. Sure, dark pulp stories can be great if they are directed skillfully, but overly cynical, violent films fail to connect with audiences emotionally and often don't create memorable (or likable) characters. 

Anybody who hasn't seen Modern Times is missing out on an essential piece of cinema. A good film is never to old to watch, and this one is a classic. There is a reason why it continues to be talked about despite being almost eighty years of age. Modern Times manages to be one of those few movies that is enjoyable to all ages and demographics. Next time it plays at your local film festival, run don't walk, to see Modern Times on the large screen. 

Nothing says 'the end' like walking out into a picturesque background! 

Rating: 5/5