While Chaplin is known for his physical comedy, Modern Times moves the Tramp into a new direction, making a hard hitting statement about the depression era and man coexisting with machine.
Chaplin’s lovable Tramp character is seen here as a factory worker, on the verge of a breakdown as he’s unable to keep up with the frantic pace mandated by the conveyor belt before him. After being subjected to a crack pot inventor’s machine, intended to feed employees while they work, the Tramp suffers a breakdown, which causes havoc for man and machine alike. After being mistaken for a communist supporter leading a parade down a street, the Tramp is put in jail, where, after a heroic act, is set free to pursue a life of unemployment. Seeing jail as a better alternative to starvation, the Tramp attempts to return to jail. Meanwhile he meets a Gamin (Paulette Goddard) and they set out to start a new life together.
Modern Times is a significant film for several reasons. It was originally going to be Chaplin’s first talkie as the Tramp, it acted as Chaplin’s social comment on the depression era, and it is considered the last silent film from that era. In the end, Modern Times became a mix of silent film and talkie, but in keeping with Chaplin’s cleverness, all dialog (except for one scene) is spoken through machines. The factory president barks orders at his workers from big screens throughout the factory (a predecessor of the all-seeing “big brother”), a salesman presents a recording of his sales pitch, and voices are heard over a radio. There are also several sounds presented in the film, such as whistles, dogs, and gunshots. This is also the only time the Tramp speaks, but as expected from Chaplin, the Tramp’s only audible dialog is a song of gibberish (which Chaplin chose to make sure the dialog could be understood (or not understood) by all people).
With Chaplin’s Tramp character, he shows how much control his has over his body and why he’s one of the greats of physical comedy. Many of the jokes seem overdone, since they’ve been mimiced endlessly in Hollywood through the years, but it’s still easy to appreciate the level of physical control and demand Chaplin commands in his performance. Chaplin’s female co-star, Paulette Goddard is no slouch either as she’s right along with him in many scenes and proves a worthy companion. There’s one particular scene in the factory when the Tramp gets caught in the gears of a large machine, it’s like a choreographed dance with the inner-workings of a great machine.
If you’re new to Chaplin or have been a fan for years, Modern Times is an insightful and entertaining romp through an era of beginnings and endings, and what better tour guide than the lovable Tramp.
Apart from a great transfer of this classic film, the DVD/Blu-ray release boasts a handful of extras, including an intro by David Robinson, the insightful 26 minute documentary with Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne titled Chaplin Today: Modern Times, deleted scenes, Modern Times karaoke, photo gallery, and trailer reel.
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Writer: Charlie Chaplin
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard
Runtime: 87 minutes