Classic Cracker: Modern Times (1936)
Although it’s absolutely true that movie taste is subjective, and although it’s equally true that comedy is equally subjective, it’s hard to dispute the fact that the enduring comedy icons who appeared in movies throughout the first half of the twentieth century are still so beloved because they took the time and effort to craft comedic works that hold up as object lessons in how to tickle the funnybone. Laurel & Hardy, The Marx Brothers, Abbott & Costello, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd. And, of course, Charlie Chaplin.
For many people, Chaplin is more of a frozen image than an energetic and innovative entertainer. I’m projecting here, because this is how I felt for many years, but Chaplin is often just one image; the little tramp. Sure, sometimes you will see a famous clip from The Gold Rush, or people will share a clip of one of the greatest speeches in cinematic history, from The Great Dictator, but it’s hard to deny that many people nowadays know the iconography of Chaplin, the stick and moustache and hat, better than they know the work of the man. Which makes it even more of an eye-opening experience when you finally view one of his movies in entirety, and can finally see his mastery of comedy.
Chaplin plays a factory worker who has a bit of a breakdown, after a hilarious opening act showing him struggling to keep up with the speed of the line before being chosen as a test subject for an automatic feeding machine. Once he has been cured, he gets back into the world, only to end up inadvertently involved in a protest march that leads to his arrest. Upon his release from prison, Chaplin quickly realises that he yearns to get back there, and he seizes his opportunity while helping out a desperate young woman (Paulette Goddard). From that moment on, Chaplin and Goddard work together to survive the difficulties of modern life, struggling to find and maintain employment while shaking off the shackles of their recent past.
I’ve just tried to surmise the plot, but that does nothing to convey the joy delivered to viewers in almost every moment of this film. From the very first frame to the (bittersweet?) ending, Modern Times allows Chaplin, who also wrote and directed the movie, to line up gag after gag after gag. Whether he’s moving the wrong block of wood in a shipyard, accidentally sprinkling drugs all over his prison meal, or trying to deliver a meal from one side of a crowded floor to another, this is a non-stop parade of highlights. In between the laughs, you get to enjoy a blossoming romance between the sweet male lead and a fiery and beautiful Goddard, and there are decent supporting turns from Henry Bergman and Tiny Sandford (AKA Stanley Sandford).
If you haven’t seen Modern Times before then watch it right now. If you haven’t seen any Charlie Chaplin film before then watch it right now. If you’re in the mood for a comedy classic then, yes indeed, watch it right now.
WRITER/DIRECTOR: CHARLES CHAPLIN
STARS: CHARLES CHAPLIN, PAULETTE GODDARD, HENRY BERGMAN, TINY SANDFORD
RUNTIME: 87 MINS APPROX