Modern Times (1936, Charles Chaplin)
Modern Times is really three movies in one, and two of them are excellent, although only one even approaches the impeccable pathos and humor of Chaplin’s prior effort, City Lights. A third is harrowingly brilliant comedy (with visual quotes from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis) about the Industrial Age, another third is a slightly overcooked but witty and heartfelt sort-of-love story, and the final third is an unrelenting comedy-drama about the Depression. This last bit feels more like an extension of City Lights than an enhancement of it; all the really alarmingly grand stuff is in the first ten minutes and the last five. To be sure, the conventional portions of the film have considerable value, especially at the finale (with the song routine being one of the all-time great comic performances), but it’s the surrealistic nonsense involving big machines with lots of gears that sticks, rapturously beautiful and batshit as anything he ever did.
Everyone has stolen something from this movie. All you have to do is watch Woody Allen in Sleeper or Wallace in A Close Shave or Lucille Ball in anything to see how much of an effect Chaplin had and has on filmed comedy, more, frankly, in terms of his performance art than in his filmmaking. Many of the best moments of Modern Times are more balletic than funny, while the more direct portions that are guaranteed to elicit laughter somehow seem disposable by comparison.
Certainly, the movie is to be applauded for its truly uncompromising ending and final shot, but it would feel more sincere if the film didn’t spend so much going down the road of cushy, dubious sentimentality with the relationship subplot, which is seemingly more parental than romantic. (The Tramp hooks up with a woman who is supposed to be a homeless juvenile delinquent, three characteristics that are immediately laughable the instant you meet her in the film; it’s like Julia Roberts being cast as Anne Frank.) Chaplin toyed with intensely heartfelt pathos in City Lights and yet never fell on the wrong side, perhaps because there was some sense of reality to his story that was not connected with any kind of didactic subtext. This time out, his lapses into outright manipulation are uncomfortable at best, exhausting at worst.
People who are naturally funny often feel a need to Get Serious, which is upsetting because they usually are horrible at it, since the action nearly always arises from insincere pragmatism. I don’t completely agree with Chaplin’s many detractors on this point, but revisiting Modern Times I can understand their position somewhat. Still, even if her character isn’t fully formed, Paulette Godard as a performer is a perfect earthy match for Chaplin’s acrobatics, and though I’d rate the film slightly below The Gold Rush, these are high standards we’re talking about — it’s Chaplin, he’s completely “on,” and it’s close to a masterpiece. The incredible cocaine sequence, for example, is perhaps more startling than anything in even City Lights… and whether Chaplin’s understanding of economic strife seems affected or not, there’s no question his heart’s in the right place and that the results are touching. It’s hard not to well up a bit at that “Never say die!” at the finale, and anyone who’s ever confronted a difficult time will feel somewhere in this narrative that they’re being directly addressed.
It’s well known that Chaplin was meticulous like few other filmmakers and that his features took ages to complete (even longer than Stanley Kubrick’s!). City Lights, for instance, was in production for four years, this one for nearly as long. It does show in the comedic sequences; while the astoundingly perfect timing and execution do sort of reveal themselves — there is something to be said for spontaneity — it says a lot about Chaplin that he would take the time to ensure this kind of perfection, something almost no filmmaker in later years bothered with. I don’t really understand, however, how he would have failed to add more of significance to the dramatic bits (outside of the ending, which, again, is glorious) if he really cared about them. City Lights seemed effortless in that regard, but City Lights didn’t have a Larger Social Point, thank god; the Tramp’s plight was enough.
Some of his other choices are equally suspect, though not in such cynical ways. City Lights was a silent film released nearly three years after the silent era essentially ended, but since it had been in production for much longer, there was an excuse. And one could say that Chaplin, by making Modern Times also a “silent” film, was either making a stylistic choice or (note the title) an ironic statement. But it isn’t a silent film at all. We have music, sound effects, people talking on monitors, people talking on radios, every sound that a talkie would have except the actual dialogue. If it’s a surreal statement of some kind, I fail to see the purpose. It’s not that I have a problem with pantomime, but given that the “silent” charade results in the film having innumerable title cards, I can’t really see how the approach aided the movie, though it does add immeasurably to the novelty of at last, at the climax, hearing the Tramp’s voice.
But Modern Times is considered one of the greatest of all American movies, and it deserves its reputation. It’s in the department store sequence, the stunning final shot, and that unforgettable first act that it brushes with true greatness. And we could name all of the iconic comedies that owe everything to it but I don’t know if you or I have the patience.
[Expanded from a review posted in 2005.]