Frequently pigeonholed as a silent comedy, Modern Times is more loosely “speechless”; about seven years after the rest of Hollywood went all-talking, Charlie Chaplin persisted in denying his iconic Little Tramp the prosaic, demythologizing burden of dialogue. In his final turn inhabiting the character that had made him the king of film comedy for over 20 years, Chaplin used his own musical score, sound effects, and isolated instances of speech from technological sources (a factory owner barks from a video screen as Charlie smokes in the men’s room, “Get back to work!”), but withholds his own vocals until a climactic comic song with gibberish lyrics. Returning to the cinema five years after City Lights, the world’s most beloved filmmaker, and autodidactic champion of the people, communicated his distress over dehumanization and the cruelty of industrialized urban life not with the word but his inimitable gift of precise pantomime and peerlessly choreographed comic routines.
As pointed out by critics upon its release, Modern Times is structured like a loose series of shorts, and the first—call it The Factory Worker—is the movie’s best-remembered segment; after some Metropolis-style shots of sheep-like hordes streaming into a steel plant, presided over by that all-seeing capitalist with his closed-circuit TV monitor, Chaplin is introduced as an assembly-line drone who’s driven into a delirious, wrench-wielding ballet by his repetitive labor, tightening two bolts on each passing gizmo. (He’s also a guinea pig for a test of a time-saving “feeding machine” in the film’s most hilarious, blissfully timed bit, clamped to a metallic table as mechanical arms assault him with soup and a spinning corncob, then helpfully wipe his mouth.) This episode, with the metaphorical sight of Chaplin slipping into a giant set of gears where he is pushed through like celluloid through a projector, loomed so large in the star’s legacy that a series of TV ads for IBM in the early 1980s, which co-opted the Tramp as a happy customer of office machinery, provoked accusations of desecration and sacrilege.
Paulette Goddard’s barefoot gamine, a homeless “child of the waterfront,” was unusually elevated to true co-star status by Chaplin, as his put-upon, regularly jailed hero’s partner and fellow free spirit. Introduced as a spunky thief holding a knife between her teeth as she flings bananas to street urchins, Goddard certainly benefited from her decade-long romance with the auteur, but her performance burns with both movie-star charisma and sufficient innocence to make the relationship conveniently chaste. (The gamine is a teenager threatened with institutionalization; when they commandeer a shack to live in, the Tramp literally sleeps in the doghouse.) Between the sketches of their night-watchman duty in a department store and entertainers in a café, Chaplin insistently inserts sobering tastes of real life. The girl’s father is killed, presumably by police guns, in labor demonstration; when the Tramp picks up a fallen red flag from a cargo truck, he is unknowingly trailed by a social-justice march dotted with “Libertad” placards, and immediately arrested in a gag tainted by the history of Chaplin’s ban from the U.S. amid Red-baiting in the early ‘50s.
Biographies of Chaplin indicate that he was no dogmatist in his ideology, and Modern Times unfailingly remains a comedy, and a great one, while still being informed by Dickensian anger and sorrow at the plight of the oppressed class. Both laughter and menace spring from Chaplin’s career-long assumption that police are the enemy of the poor, and the Tramp prefers the security of jail to the street (“Can’t I stay a little longer? I’m so happy here,” he pleads upon release). As a resourceful entertainer, he supplies a sound-driven mortification routine of a stomach-rumbling tea party with a minister’s dowdy wife; prison also brings the accidental ingestion of cocaine and the paradox of a needlepoint-fixated thug as cellmate. When the target is nothing but laughs, they come, but the Tramp’s emotional swan song—a Ma Joad-like exhortation to the weeping gamine to “never say die,” followed by the two fugitives’ walk toward the horizon to the enduring “Smile” theme—is a piercingly sweet tableau of love and solidarity.
While arty cinematography was never characteristic of Chaplin's films in any era, the new digital transfer does give a crisp, quasi-documentary immediacy to the outdoor location shots, and shows off the remarkable depth of focus achieved by the director and his head cameraman Roland Totheroh on the sizable studio sets for the department store and factory. The crucial monaural soundtrack impeccably delivers the essential effects, from humming machines to human flatulence, and the ambitious musical score.
A bounty of scholarly supplements, despite the unavailability of behind-the-scenes footage and scarce testimony from the principal creators. David Robinson, author of Chaplin's 1985 authorized biography, supplies the commentary track on Modern Times, focusing on how it echoes Chaplin's previous work in its social consciousness but was a departure in its production method; in the midst of the Depression, even a powerful independent boss like Chaplin could not afford the slow, improvisatory shooting style to which he'd been accustomed. Robinson also notes that Chaplin's politics could best be described as "humanistic capitalism" (a tightfisted CEO, he paid one supporting player $25 a day), and that he fully wired his sets to make a full-dialogue film before abandoning the idea a few days into shooting. A featurette with contemporary special effects wizards Ben Burtt and Craig Barron details the film's careful employment of sound, mattes and miniatures to augment both mise en scène and gags.
A visual essay by Jeffrey Vance examines the film's production through on-set stills, some showing Paulette Goddard's gamine transformed into a nun in a mercifully scrapped ending, and another by John Bengtson maps the major locations on the streets of downtown Los Angeles and the waterfront of Terminal Island. In a 1992 interview David Raksin, longtime film composer who arranged the score in his first movie job, describes Chaplin as "a total autocrat" who was not used to having his opinions challenged (a mindset which resulted in Raksin being briefly dismissed from the four-month gig), but also as a man with an absorbent, instinctive musical aptitude, who explicitly suggested the flavor of Puccini or Gershwin for specific cues. (Also included is the music track of the opening factory sequence, sans effects.) The first disc is rounded out with a longer cut of the Tramp's gibberish song, plus the sole surviving deleted scene, and theatrical re-release trailers from the U.S., France, and Germany.
The second disc emphasizes footage over photos, beginning with an 8mm home movie shot by British journalist Alistair Cooke on a 1933 weekend spent sailing to Catalina with Chaplin and Goddard on the filmmaker's yacht; it's notable for Chaplin's poses as Jean Harlow and Greta Garbo, and Goddard's unvarnished beauty. A short Cuban documentary from 1967 presents isolated mountain-town dwellers who've never seen a film until a government-sponsored crew delights them with a showing of Modern Times. Luc and Pierre Dardenne exult in the Tramp's balletic energy and social criticism in a segment of the French TV series Chaplin Today: "If he entered (Lang's) Metropolis, it would collapse!" This program also features clips of Chaplin meeting Gandhi, and being mobbed across the globe on an early-'30s international tour. Included in its entirety is Chaplin's 1916 two-reeler The Rink, which showcases the expert roller-skating he would reprise two decades later in Modern Times, and contrasts its young, knockabout Tramp with the more refined figure of '36.
The set's booklet features a Saul Austerlitz essay on the film as a turning point and peak of its maker's career, and a piece by Lisa Stein on how Chaplin's global travels produced "a changed man" determined to reflect the perils of the times in his work. The total package makes a persuasive case that the Little Tramp's finale is both of its time and timeless.
An anomaly in its era, Chaplin's film is now a treasure of Depression America's zeitgeist and the curtain call of the movies' first comedic icon.