Review: Modern Times (1936)

6b168-chaplin_-_modern_timesModern Times: A story of industry, individual enterprise, humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness

With those words, Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times opens with the final installment of The Little Tramp. Clocking in at a little under 90 minutes, Chaplin is still able to do so much, because he does not waste a single segment of film. This is one of the most wonderful pieces of social commentary that Chaplin was able to dream up to reflect the life and times of his audience — to reflect these modern times.

As was his style with The Great Dictator as well, he pokes fun and critiques his targets all under the guise of comedy. He sets the stage at the industrial factory that the Tramp works in. In a precursor to the famed I Love Lucy conveyor belt episode, it is the Tramp who must fight against the constant stream of nuts and bolts. Breaks and lunch become a thing of the past, and the little man suffers a nervous breakdown that leads to mayhem involving a wild ride through the cogs of the machinery as well as some oily madness.

Right off the bat, Chaplin poked fun at this mechanized system that is overseen by a Big Brother-type figure who spends his idle moments at his desk working on puzzles and reading Tarzan serials.

After the Tramp is forced to leave his job following the series of mishaps, he is confronted by numerous issues that Chaplin gleefully exploits. These include communism, the police force, prison, and even drugs (smuggled nose-powder).

Through the Tramp character, Chaplin comments that with the state of the nation during the Depression it was better to be in jail than out in the world. At least you got a bed and food. It was better than unemployment or starving to death with the police constantly on your backs ready to quell any riots.

These sorts of issues are explored through the character of the Gamin (Paulette Goddard). She becomes the Tramp’s love interest for the rest of the film, but the circumstances of their meeting are important. She was attempting to steal a loaf a bread from a bakery truck. It was not out of malice but desperation to feed her family.

The antics are often funny throughout these sequences, but the reality is, she and her sisters lose their father, and they are already motherless. The future is bleak and there is no help to be found with the Depression at its peak.

Here is where possibly my favorite part of the film begins. The two vagrants imagine themselves living in a middle-class household with fruit they can pick from outside their window and a cow that comes up to their door to be milked. They have a fully furnished home with furniture, ottomans, drapes and a fully stocked kitchen. This is their American Dream and that is where their hope lies. One could say that this was the consumerism culture of the post-war 1950s in a nutshell.

Next, the Tramp becomes a night watchman in a department store and for the evening he and the Gamin have the place all to themselves: To roller skate, eat, and use the beds and furs as they please. It is a moment of relaxing diversion from their normally grungy, monotonous lives.

Finally, they find a home as well. It is a real fixer-upper, but it’s home and that’s all that matters. They have each other, and they seem happy enough making do. The Tramp goes back to his 9 to 5 at the factory only to get kicked out once more. The pair of them land work at a local restaurant only to have juvenile officers come after the fugitive Gamin after an uproarious floor show from the Tramp.

Thus, they are once more on the road again. But that never stopped them before, and with his inexhaustible spirit the little man cheers on his love, “Buck up, never say die. We’ll get along!”

They walk off down the highway with new resolve but more importantly they have each other. If they ever do find that elusive lifestyle I am not sure it would be all that it is cracked up to be. The life of a Depression Era vagabond was no picnic, but I think the gift of the Tramp is he is able to make the best of all circumstances. He may look to a better lifestyle in the future with hope, but he does not need it to bring him happiness. Because the reality is, it never could completely satiate. I tip my hat to you for once little man, because for someone so humble you teach us a great deal about ourselves.

Chaplin did it again bringing us a near silent picture in the age of talkies. Although I admit it might seem awkward at times, this film uses sound and the score wonderfully to accentuate the images onscreen. Chaplin did not need the needless babble of dialogue unless it was for comic effect. After all, he and Paulette Goddard had enough chemistry beforehand, they didn’t need words.

5/5 Stars

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