Sunday, July 17, 2011

No. 81: Modern Times

Silent films: I think it's fair to say they're an acquired taste. One of the first movies I ever saw was my mom's scratchy VHS tape of Charlie Chaplin's "The Gold Rush." I didn't care that it was silent; my eyes were glued to the screen as I watched him skip around in his Little Tramp suit, dancing with potatoes in his hands. Ever since then, I've had a weakness for silent films. There's just something special about the ability to communicate a movie's story without ever speaking a word.

I love The Gold Rush - but my preferred Chaplin movie is actually Modern Times (1936) - AFI film #81. What makes Modern Times even more impressive is the year it was made; 1936. I have to say, Charlie Chaplin was pretty gutsy to release a silent film in the middle of the 1930's. Today's flick also stars Paulette Goddard - at the time, Chaplin's scandalous, live-in girlfriend.

Chaplin plays an incompetent (but hilarious!) factory worker, who often finds himself in jail or unemployed due to various mishaps involving - among other things - Communists, cocaine, and jailbreaks. He meets the orphaned, runaway "Gamine" (Goddard) and together, they struggle against a hard, industrialized society, trying to make a better life. They don't quite succeed, but eventually they do escape - and in the movie's last, warily hopeful scene, Chaplin takes the Gamine's arm like a gentleman, and carrying hobo's bindle sticks, they walk out of the city into the early dawn light.

One reason some silent movies feel boring: by today’s standards, the acting seems so campy. That’s not the case with Modern Times. Chaplin’s iconic Little Tramp is over-the-top, but that’s why his movies are fun. Would Chaplin still be as revered today if he hadn’t created this larger-then-life persona, dancing like a marionette with a cane and bowler hat? I don’t think so. I love the Little Tramp character in all his films, but especially in Modern Times.

There are so many good things about this film. The comedy is definitely slapstick but it’s hilarious and cleverly staged, as well as pretty risqué for the 1930’s, with sexual innuendo, a cocaine gag, and other sly jokes. Chaplin and Goddard give simply wonderful performances, perfectly balancing joy and sadness. Add in memorable scenes like Chaplin singing his famous “nonsense song” in a mix of French and Italian - which was also notable for being the first time he spoke on film - and you’ve got one great film.

So, if you like...

* Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp character. If you don’t, I don’t even know what to say.
* An engaging mix of slapstick gags and tender (non-verbal!) moments between Chaplin and Goddard.
* Cool set design, including gigantic, super-stylized factory machines.
* The catchiest French-Italian nonsense song ever. Hands down. I’m whistling it right now.
* A truly hilarious take on a serious topic: the employment and financial issues faced by Americans during the Great Depression.

..then you’ll love Modern Times.

Next up: a not-so-comedic film - Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 Western epic and AFI #80, The Wild Bunch. It features great actors like William Holden and Ernest Borgnine, so I’m excited. Stick around and read about it!


  1. Great review. Chaplin was way ahead of his time, and you really captured that. And I learned a new expression today: bindle stick. Thank you!

  2. You nailed it: making a silent film in 1936, one that said more about modern society than most talkies, was Chaplin's brilliant move. Great review!