In 1936, Charlie Chaplin's career was at the top of it's game. This was his last silent film (despite the fact that there's a little dialogue used only as a stylistic technique) and he would only have one major hit after Modern Times in 1936. His next film would be The Great Dictator which would be very successful and although his later films (Monsieur Verdoux, Limelight, A King in New York and A Countess From Hong Kong) aren't all awful - they weren't big box office hits like Chaplin's older films.
Chaplin's stance on talkies were not a positive one. He believed that his style of storytelling, would not work out with dialogue. There's a great scene in City Lights were Chaplin parodies Hollywood's new found love for talkies. It's actually quite amazing that Chaplin was able to continue his great career being one of the most popular directors at a time when he was pretty much the only person making silent films. Going from silent to sound was the biggest step in the evolution of cinema, yet Chaplin's skill was so evident that he was still able to be loved by everyone. Perhaps it's not that surprising since Chaplin is just as much if not even more popular today.
Chaplin came up with the concept for Modern Times while promoting City Lights in Europe. He witnessed the Great Depression and lack of employment the poor people everywhere were having to face. However, Modern Times received it's finishing touch after a conversation between Chaplin and Ghandi. The exact details of this conversation are unknown, but we do know they revolved around the subject of "machinery with only consideration of profit". I find it amusing to picture the two men together, however they did have one major aspect in common: they were both sheer geniuses.
Where does Modern Times stand today? It's considered to be among Chaplin's greatest films without a doubt. It currently holds a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and an 8.6 on IMDb. The best way to view Modern Times is on The Criterion Collection.
We open on a massive factory filled with complex machines made up by giant gears. Everyone works hard as if they're nothing but robots. We soon learn that they have no choice but to work, because there is no work for anyone. In walks The Tramp, he suddenly stands out to us due to his unique attire in comparison to those surrounding him. He proceeds to fool around the factory until he is fired.
He then walks down the busy urban streets where he is mistaken for a communist protester and sent into jail. In jail, The Tramp is locked outside of his cell one day when a group of criminals break in and try to break out The Tramp's cell mate. The Tramp springs into action and defeats the criminals. The warden of the jail repays him by giving him parole.
Meanwhile, a young woman is struggling to keep her father and young sisters alive. After her father's death her sisters are taken away from her. The woman then meets up with The Tramp where they fall in love. Together, they search for employment while seeking the life so many others have always taken for granted.
What we take with us after a viewing of Modern Times is the great cartoon-ish feel that Chaplin sets up for us. There's a great scene when Chaplin dives down a conveyor belt where we see him sliding through a group of giant gears. The opening of Modern Times sets up a nearly steam punk world. This was very unique at the time considering steam punk was not a popular genre. It hadn't even been invented officially yet. This is why people congratulate the innovation of Charlie Chaplin.
Yes, here we get to see more of Chaplin's physical comedy. Unlike my review of The Gold Rush, I'm not going to go through and discuss each classic comedic moment in Modern Times. Although this film is funny, it's not quite as funny as some of the other Chaplin films. If you want to see a Chaplin film for a laugh and not much more, see The Gold Rush because although there is little more than laughs in it - there are so many great laughs that you really don't care for more. Modern Times is primarily about the social justice issues arriving in the lower class as opposed to some good jokes. Yes, there are indeed funny physical humour moments in Modern Times, but when you take the DVD out, that's really not what you want to take back with you. Overall, I approve of Modern Times for going beyond the laughs, which City Ligths did a little - but Modern Times took that concept, and far exceed it.
My main quibble with Modern Times is small - yet it stay with you. I understand why Chaplin used talking in the factory for a brief moment (only the rich were heard talking through intercoms) but it's a distracting technique that takes you out of the mood that Chaplin's films are intended to set.
"The times, they are a changin'" sang Bob Dylan in one of his biggest songs "The Times They Are a Changin'". No, Bob Dylan has absolutely nothing in common with Charlie Chaplin, but I chose to quote that song because of the nostalgic feel I pull back from Modern Times. There is nothing flattering about humanity in Modern Times, and yet, it makes me wish I were to be living in another time period. That's nostalgia - and it takes a great director to say so much about the horrors of the times while making you still feels a sense of nostalgia. Chaplin's attempt to say something about the misfortune that the unemployed were to experience works because he does it in a unique way. When directors such as Steven Spielberg want to make you feel something about a subject - they make it as unsubtle as possible. Chaplin uses humour to make you feel on a subject. It certainly works.
Directed by Charlie Chaplin,
Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard and Henry Bergman
1. The Gold Rush
2. Modern Times
3. The Kid