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.
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 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.