Perhaps because it’s such an instantly recognizable melancholic torch song standard today, few people realize that it took years after the release of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times for the filmmaker’s gorgeously whimsical instrumental composition “Smile” to find its perfect lyrical counterpart in the memorable lines penned by the songwriting team of John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons.
Likewise, it’s nearly impossible to view the Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition of the work today without hearing the heartbreaking chorus play in the back of your mind as Chaplin’s famed Tramp persona (in the character’s swan song) teaches his beautiful female counterpart played by Paulette Goddard to smile despite the countless setbacks they encounter in the film’s Great Depression era setting.
And this is quite fitting since Charlie Chaplin, who’d grown up in intense poverty in a childhood that wouldn’t be out of place in a Charles Dickens novel, had realized early that the best way to survive was through laughter. Furthermore, after achieving the status of great wealth and privilege while being one of the most recognizable and successful entertainers of the silent era, Chaplin decided to make a film without much dialogue but rich in sound effects that made full use of the sound era.
Topically, he wanted Modern Times to serve as both a political commentary on the industrial society and a humorous depiction of his beloved Tramp character, now adorned in factory overalls who tries to get by in a changing world of industry, questionable power-hungry authority figures, and those who relished in the harsh treatment of mankind in the Great Depression. Arguably the filmmaker’s last great movie and in my eyes, his crowning achievement, Modern Times served as a gently comedic cautionary tale warning of the dangers of too much machinery and modernization and the dehumanization of the common worker.
According to Jeffrey Vance’s Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema, Charlie Chaplin received the idea for Modern Times during a sixteen-month world tour following the release of City Lights wherein he met with such important figures as Churchill, Shaw, Einstein and Ghandi and saw the global effects of the Great Depression firsthand and chronicled his findings in a series of articles entitled, “A Comedian Sees the World,” which was published in Woman’s Home Companion in 1933 and 1934.
The combination of all of his discoveries led to the plot of the film Modern Times, which Chaplin was initially fueled by a conversation he shared with Mahatma Ghandi in which, as DVD Journal shared, Ghandi “discussed his belief that machines, if used wisely, could be a boon to mankind, but if used only for profit would deliver only misery.”
Machines used for profit deliver more than just misery in Modern Times—the perilous machines threaten the workers at Jettson Mills, the Tramp’s place of employment as the film opens after Chaplin inserts not only his belief that the antagonist is the time period itself with the title of his film but also providing the audiences with the following introduction, “A story of industry, of individual enterprise, humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness.”
A shirtless beast of a man starts up the machine, signifying audiences that brawn rules over brains, as the Big Brother-like factory president tells him to speed things up, in his Kubrickian-like immaculate office, creepy and antiseptic with a large TV screen (keep in mind that those hadn’t been invented) as he observes the labor from his perch.
Unable to swat a fly, itch his nose or pause for a second without causing delay along the assembly lines, Chaplin struggles to keep up with the pace tightening bolts as the work zips by, being bullied by superiors and fellow workers. The repetitive motion of the job stays with him after he steps away to the restroom and his hands involuntarily twitch, tightening invisible bolts the whole way making him spill a piping hot bowl of soup in the process.
And later, after being pushed to work at maximum speed, in one of the film’s most famous and recognizable moments, Chaplin snaps and goes through the assembly line until he’s swallowed by the machine itself (which critic Mark Bourne noted looked “suspiciously like the threading path of a motion picture camera,” possibly indicating that the silent Tramp was being devoured in the sound era and would become forgotten as another cog in the machine) and spit back out.
Chaplin's film abounds with a mistrust of authority figures-- the exploitation of the common man it seems is not only machinery but workers that have been forced to operate like machinery-- completely by the book with no regard for humanity. After being cured of his mental exhaustion and breakdown, the Tramp is (now infamously) picked up by the police for innocently waving a red flag dropped on the street by a passing truck only to find himself inconveniently in the midst of a communist parade wherein he is presumed their leader.
While throughout the film and mostly at the hands of his bosses, the Tramp is a victim of authority abuse, it is most apparent in the plot of Paulette Goddard's character, the "Gamin,"-- a word that Bourne points out "is a gender-switch misseplling of Gamine," whom Chaplin introduces to audiences with a card that reads, "a child of the waterfront who refuses to go hungry."
The first time we see Goddard -- arguably the most strikingly attractive of Chaplin's leading ladies -- face speckled with mud spots, wearing a short, ragged black dress, barefoot, a knife in her teeth, hair even shinier in black and white from the perceived oil of infrequent washings, she’s tossing bananas to her starving motherless younger sisters.
Although she escapes from authorities in her pursuits to gather food and kindling for fire, she finds her life forever impacted by the senseless death of her father by accidental gunshot in a mob of unemployed men. While she’s described as “a minor,” the Gamin's age is never revealed. After her younger sisters are taken by the juvenile authorities as orphans in a turn of events eerily similar to Chaplin’s childhood, Goddard flees their custody only to be picked up for stealing a loaf of bread after an eyewitness identifies her even though the Tramp gallantly, trying to return to a jail he'd comfortably inhabited, tries to admit the theft was his doing.
And for the first time onscreen, the Tramp has met a woman whom, Mark Bourne points out, "is given equal status carrying the movie," and that "finally he has a partner," in loving a girl who at last returns his affections. While some viewers including Jeffrey Vance, considered the Gamin and Tramp to be just platonic friends given their inhabiting chastely a shanty hut together (216), I find it to be a delicate romance-- one that cannot be questioned given the sweet flirtatious scene as the two watch a happy couple in a beautiful home and imagine what it would be like to be them.
Likewise, it is also apparent in my favorite sequence as the Tramp is given a job as a night watchman in a department store and lets in the Gamin, treating her to a memorable marathon date. The two have dinner on the first floor, activity on the toy floor as the two roller skate around the store in a sequence that Chaplin took eight days to shoot having first perfected his extraordinary skills “in The Rink nearly twenty years earlier,” (Vance 219), until lastly bidding her a gentlemanly good night and letting her sleep in one of the luxurious bedroom displays while he goes downstairs and resumes work.
Yet while the delicate nature of the scenes between the Gamin and the Tramp provide a nice balance and counterpoint to the cruel and dehumanized world of the industrial revolution amidst the Great Depression, Chaplin was also providing a fond farewell for his Tramp character who had become passé now that sound ruled Hollywood.
Personally, Chaplin felt that “the matrix out of which he [The Tramp] was born was as mute as the rags he wore,” and felt that “the first word he uttered would transform him into a different person,” (Vance 214). Of course, gibberish was not out of the question!
Therefore, in an uproarious scene finding the penniless duo working as singing/dancing waiters, with the Tramp unable to remember the words to the song he was going to perform, Chaplin does some of his best work as a consummate entertainer, rambling an Italian sounding, bawdy and suggestive nonsensical tune complete with pantomime to a thrilled, cheering crowd. The gibberish is sung in Chaplin’s own voice proving to viewers that yes, he can still be funny in sound but not in a recognizable language and while it’s an interesting, daring and slightly egotistical choice for the performer, the result is comedy perfection.
Nonetheless in staying true to the film’s form, the Tramp cannot have a heroic moment for long so unfortunately authorities having just caught up to the pair, they set off on the road, walking hand in hand a little less enthusiastically but together embracing the unknown ahead and doing so, as the Tramp tenderly reminds his companion, with a smile.
Obviously in the era of Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton and other contemporaries, Chaplin’s Modern Times wasn’t the first film made by a silent comedian using their environmental, social and political surroundings as fodder for the landscape of their comedic genius and social commentary.
However, it is without a doubt my favorite and the work that originally made me fall in love with both Charlie Chaplin and the wonders of filmmaking as an eleven year old girl. And sure enough, the first analytical film paper that I ever wrote focused on Chaplin’s life and Times, which not only garnered me my very first writing award but also set me on the path to film criticism for life.
Fortunately, I’m still irresistibly drawn to his multifaceted production nearly two decades later thanks to this jaw-dropping Criterion release. Likewise, I realize that my admiration for the film and its mastermind remains just as strong today as in the Tramp I still see an artistically heroic figure who discovered a way to laugh (or merely smile) through pain and attempted to use cinema with the ultimate humanistic goal of leaving the world a little better than he'd found it.
Beare, Emma. 501 Must-See Movies. London: Octopus Publishing Group Limited, 2004.
Dirks, Tim. “Modern Times.”
Chaplin, Charles. My Autobiography. New York: Plume, 1964.
Modern Times. Dir: Charlie Chaplin. United Artists, 1936. Criterion Collection Re-release, 2010.
Vance, Jeffrey. Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2003.
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