Modern Times (1936)
What most film buffs I’m greatly entertained by many of the technologically advanced movies that dominate the industry today. With such advances as 4K Ultrahigh Definition, multichannel surround sound and even 3-D, it is easy to forget some of the classic films that were responsible for cinema not only become the most popular form of public entertainment allowed the motion picture to become a major influence in artistic expression. I was recently reminded of this while talking to a close friend in the discussion turned around to some of the origins of modern motion pictures. Inevitably in such a conversation one name would have to come up, Charlie Chaplin. Known for his iconic ‘Little Tramp’ character this man was far more than just one of the originators of slapstick comedy. It was a writer, director, producer and composer for all of his films. He was the first one to ever receive a multi- film contract with a payout of $1 million, and that was in 1917. That would be over $20 million in today’s currency. He also cofounded United Artists, the studio that was dedicated to giving the control of films to the people who made the and not the monopoly of majors studio corporations. The true measure of the impact this man has made on our culture is that so many of the themes explored in his films are relatable in today’s world. One such film is consideration here, ‘Modern Times’, Chapman’s exploration of the effect of modern technology on the individual. Even though sound was introduced to the first ‘talkie’, ‘The Jazz Singer’ in 1927 Mr. Chaplin is an ardent believer in the silent movie is the best vehicle for his artistic expression. For those who cannot believe that he film with no dialogue, indeed no sound effects, and in black and white shown in the Academy aspect ratio 4:3 would have any value today this movie certainly prove you wrong. It was inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in recognition of the significant contribution it has major culture.
The film opens with Mr. Chaplin is usual guise of the little tramp with his signature small mustache and when appropriate, a bowler hat. He is referred to simply as ‘A Factory Worker’ a man whose entire job working on the assembly line repeatedly tightening the nut on a bolt as the stream passed him. The repetitive motion of his arm is so ingrained in him that even manifests in his off hours. Automation is taking control in this vision of the future where the lamentable worker is even fed by an automatic machine horse including to him. The last part of individuality cannot be extinguished and ultimately the worker has a nervous breakdown when the assembly line increases rapidly in speed. He runs amok in the factory disrupting the perfectly synchronized procession of the manufacturing process. At one point he even becomes entangled within the gears of the massive machine rolling over them through the maze of cogs. He is sent off to the hospital but emerges unemployed. The escalating speed of an assembly line has become a solid comic meme most memorably repeated it is seen with Lucille Ball in an episode of ‘I Love Lucy’. It is still very much part of the comic environment was recently used in a current sitcom, ‘2 Broke Girls. Much of Mr. Chaplin humor is based so strongly on the common human experience that it can readily retain its effect over 70 years. Some of Mr. Chaplin’s political influences are infused into this initial scene as the reason for his dismissal job was he is believed to be a communist instigator.
Out of work our protagonist must now find some form of employment but once again causes an accident. At the fleeing yet another mess he created he runs into a little orphan girl, Ellen (Paulette Goddard), who is fleeing the police after stealing a loaf of bread. In a chivalrous attempt to save the girl he confesses to the crime but a witness comes forward exonerating him. This chance meeting marked the beginning of a series of somewhat interconnected vignettes each one focusing on an aspect of the modern society. In an effort to get arrested again and save Ellen the worker goes through a cafeteria and after eating an enormous amount of food does not pay. He meets up with the girl in the police Patty wagon. When it crashes the two of them take the opportunity to escape. He finally lands a job as a night watchman at a department store and sneaks Ellen in one night. During his shift he encounters three burglars one of whom turns out to be a former coworker at the factory. The job pays so little that the men were hungry and desperate leading them to burglary. After having a few drinks commiserating the plight of hero falls asleep waking up at the beginning of business hours only to be filed yet again.
To fully understand this film it is necessary to consider the time period in which it was made. After the 1929 crash of the stock market the world was plunged into an economic crisis still referred to as ‘The Great Depression’. In the United States it was combined with a major crop failure in the Midwest millions of people homeless, hungry and hopeless. Charlie Chaplin was very much an artist who represented the people and remained a staunch champion of the common man. The humble nature of his Little Tramp character gave testimony of this in every movie. Although he is one of the richest filmmakers of his time he never lost track of this connection to the man in the street. His films, especially this one, spoke directly to its audience on a deeply emotional and personal level. It addressed such things as automation replacing men at work in the plight of the working poor, a social caste that has become increasingly significant during the depression.
This is considered Mr. Chaplin’s last silent movie although there were some concessions made to the public’s demand for sound Mr. Chapman did include a modicum of sound, vocal, and musical effects throughout. Still, the power of his character was conveyed to facial expressions and body language; Charlie Chaplin was a master of invoking powerful emotional responses the audience with just a slight movement or change in the expression on his face. He was one of the first performance was truly able to combine humor and pathos in a fashion that is still difficult to approach. This film remains a poignant commentary on the effective modern technological advances inflict on the average person. This is not just the casual theme for motion picture Mr. Chaplin. He reflected a set of beliefs that was intrinsically part of the man. Ultimately his philosophical viewpoints and political leanings would result in serious consequences as his films became increasingly controversial. Most of his movies have been inducted into the Criterion Collection making him one of the most frequently represented filmmakers on that list. The trademark additional material provided the Blu-ray version of this movie offers the cinematic aficionado a veritable graduate school analysis of the man, the film in their time. The fully restored video is spectacular when rendered in the high-definition made possible by the Blu-ray format. I’ve seen this movie several times a less advanced formats and notice nuances I have never before was able to discern. You realize just how threadbare much of the clothing is as the 1080p resolution allows you to notice stress hanging from the fabric. Mr. Chapman’s use of shattering is remarkable and demonstrate just one aspect is multifaceted genius. When you are ready to strip away all the high-tech affectations imposed on modern movies and watch something that is cinema in its purest form you need look no farther than this film.