Modern Times (1936): Movie Review

Modern Times (1936): Movie ReviewGuest blogger Simon Columb writes:

Charlie Chaplin, above anything, was controversial. He was an artist who, through his success, shook the tree and commented on American freedom (The Immigrant) using a character known as “The Little Tramp.” Modern Times remains iconic and unforgettable as it was the tramp’s final appearance. Created in 1914, the Little Tramp is – and remains – the most iconic character of the silent era. So, it is worth noting that a practically-silent feature film in 1936 was not that common – in fact, Chaplin even wrote a script for the film but decided to throw it out – “famously fearing that the mystery and romanticism of the tramp character would be ruined if he spoke”.

The First Shot…

… shows sheep. The shot portrays a herd of sheep squeezing through a gate before dissolving into a group of factory workers ploughing into the work place. Already, seconds in, Chaplin makes his point. Between 1931 and 1932, Chaplin was on an 18-month world-tour. He saw the poverty and problems in the western world – even commenting “Unemployment is the vital question … Machinery should benefit mankind. It should not spell tragedy and throw [mankind] out of work.”. Much like Chaplin’s two-reeler’s, this film is broken into multiple sections. First we see the famous factory-sequence as Chaplin attempts to work in the monotonous and repetetive environment of factory work – leading to his madness. Each sequence notes a different contradiction or conflict in society. Chaplin, in the factory, is used and abused and hurt (through the testing of a machine that ‘cuts out’ the lunch hour!!!) and, inevitably perhaps, goes crazy.

Strikes and Drugs

Another highly relevant issue is also raised as the economic unrest and lack of employment ultimately leads to strike action. Through the film, we see how the strikes affects the poverty-stricken area – putting people out of the job and even taking lives. These strikes not only serve as a way to split the narrative but, additionally, we see how after a strike directly affects Chaplin’s employment, his unhappy and frustrated attitude even leads to his arrest. The police punch him and kick him – a real example of the abuse strike-action often recieves.

Secondly, one sequence begins with the title card “searching for smuggled ‘nose-powder.” and we see, in prison, a convict hiding cocaine in a salt jar – leading to an incredible sequence as Chaplin uses the cocaine on his own food. This sequence finishes as the tramp is scared of the outside world and is more comfortable in jail. These are big themes and huge statements that Chaplin was making. Real examples of a true artist – this is not merely entertainment, this is entertainment with edge.

Intelligent Comedy

So often I find myself arguing a similar point. Why should a film be analysed and disected? Why can’t people just enjoy films and leave it at that? Moreso with comedy. What makes a good comedy? memorable dialogue? slap-stick humour? Not to mention how, I believe, some comedies give the impression of a much more intelligent agenda. Monty Python and the Holy Grail is what first comes to mind, but the relentless barrage of jokes and tone of Airplane! cannot be ignored either. One thing which is clear about Modern Times is how it clearly sits in the “intelligent comedy” bracket. Chaplin knows what he is doing and is maximising his opportunities for comedy whilst making a political point. Even sequences involving Paulette Goddard as “The Gamin” have real heart and are played completely straight – despite the Little Tramp’s clumsy nature. A building falling apart Paulette Goddard and Charlie Chaplin in "Modern Times" provides opportunity for slapstick – which is perfectly delivered by Chaplin. But additionally, the low standard of housing for the two working-class citizens is a worthy point to raise. It is purposeful and defined – over-analysis is with reason. My personal laugh-out-loud moments include a sequence wehere a flag falls off a truck. The tramp picks it up and calls after the truck, waving the flag, only for a strike march to coincidently appear behind him, giving the impression he is leading the strike. His complete lack of awareness and innocence again makes the sequence even more hilarious.

The Tramp films often end with his lonely walk – only for him to gain a spring in his step and walk confidently away. Not this time. This is a film which ends negatively as the tramp and the gamin escape from police who attempted to arrest her. The two sit on the edge of the road and, she cries:

Gamin: What’s the use of trying?
The Tramp: Buck up – never say die. We’ll get along!

The two walk off together, arm in arm, as if to note that the future is officially bright for our tramp character.

Simon Columb is an Art & Design Teacher in Secondary Education in London who has always been fascinated with art, music, film, television, contemporary painters, sculptors, etc. Alongside his blog – www.screeninsight.com – he also takes part in a weekly podcast called ‘The Simon and Jo Film Show’ (http://simonandjofilmshow.podomatic.com/), whereby the duo analyses a new release, the London box office and another choice pick from the history of cinema.
  • Kai Ferano

    Well, maybe it’s because I’ve never been a Chaplin fan (like my mother was), but: I don’t go to a movie to be lectured to, to become socially or politically correct, nor to critically examine the ethics of my country. I go to be entertained, either through comedy or drama.

  • Tom K.

    Recently I shared “Modern Times” with my grandson, some 51 years younger than I. Since the film is really old, silent AND in black and white, he was skeptical. However, once he saw the “worker feeding machine” he was hooked on Chaplin. We both roared with laughter and replayed that and other scenes. Great movies are timeless.

  • Jack Jones

    I first saw Modern Times 75 years ago and my main recollection is Chaplin being fed metal bolts by the machine.

  • Publius

    I did not see much of Chaplin’s output until it went on video. MODERN TIMES has always been my favorite Chaplin film. While agreeing with the reviewer, does he notice in the opening sequence that a black sheep is mixed in with the white? I have showed this film to my students as an example of film comedy and while some did not enjoy it, others ate it up. My recent students all loved the scene with the red flag, and they even called in their friends to my classroom to see it after school. While Stan Laurel was upset that critics thought Charlie was putting a message into his comedies and strongly said that Chaplin did no such thing, but was trying to make people laugh, I’m not so sure. I think Chaplin had the genius to put pathos into his pictures; you have to have a buffer because the audience can’t be screaming with laughter every minute. Nearly everyone of his films made money, and were comedy masterpieces! Even his enemies concede that he had a wonderful talent. My mother was never a Chaplin fan either, but when we both saw him as an old man receive his lifetime Academy Award, it was difficult not to be moved when one saw the whole gallery of people rise to its feet and give this old man, blubbering and weeping, a standing ovation. My mother said quietly after the tribute: “I guess he really was a great artist!” I think that was the highest compliment the master ever had, although he never heard it!

  • Stan

    I never saw this movie as comedy. I have always had the opinion that Chaplain was using his influence to say something about the state of the worker and what life was like in the mechanized world. You can draw a lot of meanings from what was being told though.

  • Blair Kramer

    Basically, “Modern Times” is trying to make the same point offered up in the 1925 silent film, “Metropolis.” The one difference is that “Modern Times” is a comedy. The socialist philosophy behind both films always rang hollow with me. Fritz lang, the director of “Metropolis,” was very successful in Germany before he escaped the Nazis to become even more successful directing films in the United States. And despite the fact that Charlie Chaplin was unfairly hounded by the federal government, to the point of being barred from re-entering the country, he was always a very wealthy man. Here’s the bottom line: Idealism is one thing, but a wealthy “artist” making noise about the plight of the common man is just plain silly!