Blog Directory CineVerse: A retro artist who was ahead of his time

A retro artist who was ahead of his time

Friday, February 24, 2023

Once Warner Brothers’ The Jazz Singer debuted in 1927, the era of talking pictures was born, signaling an end to the dominance of silent movies. But Charlie Chaplin never got the memo. He continued making (mostly) silent films through 1936, as evidenced by Modern Times, released that year. The CineVerse faithful put this film under a magnifying glass last week and determined that it remains one helluva funny flick, regardless of its relatively wordless status, and surprisingly relevant in the 21st century. Here’s a recap of our discussion (click here to listen to a recording of our group conversation).

What is significant about this feature film by Chaplin?

  • It’s the last true appearance of his Little Tramp character, which first debuted in 1914.
  • Many shorts and films featuring the Little Tramp end with him walking off alone. This movie concludes with him arm in arm with a partner, which was rare.
  • Modern Times also marks the only film in which the Little Tramp utters words, which occurs during the restaurant singing scene. Technically, the character is singing gibberish, not any comprehensible language.
  • Although the film includes voices and sound effects, it plays and is intended as a silent movie. This is widely considered to be the last silent film released in Hollywood. To create and distribute a silent picture in 1936 – nine years after the introduction of sound in cinema – was gutsy but risky.
    • Interestingly, other than the nonsensical song Chaplin sings, the only words spoken are delivered through a machine, such as the inventor speaking via phonograph and the factory owner talking through his screen – which serves as thematic comment on dehumanization by technology.
    • Rob Nixon of TCM wrote: “Modern Times represents more than a refusal to move into talkies for the film actually comments on sound and plays with the conventions of both silent and talking pictures. In exploring this new technology, the form of the film becomes part of the content and the story itself becomes a reflection of the cinematic "modern times," an observation on the increasingly mechanized, factory-like production of movies, something far removed from the improvisational and leisurely way Chaplin was accustomed to working.”
  • Also unusual for Chaplin, this movie has a strong female lead who is arguably not a love interest but more a platonic partner who is from the same lower rung of the socioeconomic ladder as the Little Tramp. In past films, the Tramp often pined for more unattainable females.
  • This was the breakout film for actress Paulette Goddard, who plays the Gamine.
  • Additionally, Chaplin is making more of a sociocultural/sociopolitical statement in this movie than in many of his previous Little Tramp pictures in the way he critiques corporate America, authority figures, the government, and law enforcement, while representing down and outers and the disgruntled labor force empathetically.
  • This was a rare instance of a Chaplin feature that wasn’t widely popular among audiences, and it suffered at the box office. Perhaps that can be attributed to its imagery and scenes of financial hardship at a time when many Americans didn’t want to be reminded about the Great Depression.
  • As with several Chaplin feature-length films, Modern Times is built around a handful of gags and set pieces strung together, here comprised of four main segments: the factory, the jail, the department store, and the restaurant/nightclub.
  • This film introduced Chaplin’s composition Smile to the world, one of the most beloved songs of the 20th century.

Major themes

  • The dangers of increased reliance on mechanization, industrialization, and technology over human beings. Modern Times repeatedly demonstrates how technological advancement comes with significant cost to humans, particularly workers dehumanized and exploited by big business.
  • We need to prioritize people and human ingenuity over machines and technology.
    • Deep Focus Review creator Brian Eggert wrote: “Chaplin resolves that people need human interaction, not more technology—a theme easily drawn from the Gamine’s presence. The Tramp and Gamine are like children, free of responsibility, while adults remain mindless and controlled automatons.”
  • David versus Goliath, or the little guy against the world. “Industry, labor strife, and government are all the enemies of the common man…The theme is really innocent Tramp against the world,” according to DVD Savant Glenn Erickson.
  • Good people pushed to extremes. Most characters in Modern Times, including the Little Tramp, the Gamine, and even the department store intruders, are good at heart but may have to break the law for basic needs like food and shelter during a time of extreme financial duress.
  • Grace under pressure. The Tramp and the Gamine are forced to be creative, improvisational, and cleverly spontaneous when put on the spot. They rise above their limitations with the help of pluck, inventiveness, and cunning.

Similar works

  • Metropolis
  • Sullivan’s Travels
  • The Grapes of Wrath
  • Brazil
  • Woody Allen films like Sleeper and Take the Money and Run
  • Films by Jacques Tati, including Jour de fête, Monsieur Hulot's Holiday, Mon oncle, PlayTime, Trafic, and Parade
  • TV shows like I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show

Other feature films by Chaplin

  • The Kid
  • The Gold Rush
  • The Circus
  • City Lights
  • The Great Dictator
  • Limelight

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