Unless someone suggests another, this might be my last Charlie Chaplin film. This is not meant to be an indication of how I feel about his work. On the contrary, I have probably not said enough about how talented he was. The American Film Institute’s number seventy-eight movie in its 100 Greatest American Films of All Time, Modern Times (1936), display his virtuosity early and often. The opening credits are the first indication. That he has three movies on the list is an accomplishment in and of itself. This one, he wrote, directed, and produced, not to mention composing the music for them. This is usually a disastrous combination for modern figures in Hollywood. He also did this for The Gold Rush (1925) and City Lights (1931), which makes the fact that he has so many classics to his credit even more remarkable. Modern Times takes his abilities a step further. Did you know he could roller skate? There is another first (and last): his singing voice. Today’s film, despite being made well into the era of talking pictures, contains the only example in one of his works where you see him as his iconic tramp and hear his own words. If nothing else, this makes it worth watching.
It is clear from the outset that Modern Times has something to say about the politics of its day. That day is the 1930s, and it is the middle of the Great Depression. Charlie Chaplin is credited here as “a factory worker,” and he is seen as one of the many sheep herded in to do the bidding of the president of the Electro Steel Corporation (Al Ernest Garcia). Because Chaplin’s designation is a little misleading, as we shall see, henceforth I will refer to him as Chaplin. He is one of the unnamed cogs attempting to keep up with the frenetic work on the assembly line while the president attempts to find ways to make them more efficient. The president is approached by inventors who believe their new automatic lunch feeding machine will improve the efficiency of the workers. Chaplin is chosen to be the test subject. When it malfunctions, it triggers a nervous breakdown in him that has him go on a bolt tightening and engine oil spraying spree. His antics get him fired, and he is taken into custody as he is leaving for being mistaken as leading a communist protest. He is not the only one down on his luck. Near the dockyard lives “the Gamin” (Paulette Goddard). This apparently means “street urchin.” If that is still too nebulous for you, just know that later her real name is revealed to be Ellen Peterson, so Ellen she shall henceforth be. Her mother has passed, and her father (Stanley Blystone) has been unable to find work. This leaves her and her sisters to scrounge for food as they can. Matters are made worse when her father is shot dead by the police during a labor dispute near the docks. Meanwhile, Chaplin is loving jail, even helping to thwart an attempt by his fellow inmates to escape. Indeed, when it comes time to be released, he asks the warden if he can stay longer. Nonetheless, he is released with a note vouching for his ability to labor. He soon finds a job in the shipyards, and just as soon loses it by knocking a wedge loose that sends an incomplete boat into the water to promptly sink. Turned out into the street again, his path takes him to Ellen on the heels of her stealing bread. Though he tries to take the blame for it, a witness says it is her who is the culprit. He is motivated to say so because he wants to be put back behind bars, and he finds another way of getting arrested by dining and dashing. He and Ellen are put into the same prisoner transport, but they escape when it makes a sharp turn and they are ejected together. They strike up a relationship, fantasizing about sharing a nice home. He vows to do so even if it means him having to get a job. This he does the next day when a department store’s night watchman is taken away with a serious injury. Once the store is closed, he invites her in to look around, and we get the aforementioned roller skating. Eventually, she settles into a comfortable bed for the night, but he is left to attempt fend off burglars on his own. Luckily, they are former co-workers of his from the factory and they proceed to get drunk. He is found when the store re-opens sleeping on a counter in the fabrics department, and it is back to jail. Ellen is there to greet him this time, and she has a surprise for him. She has found a little shack for them near a river. Though it is falling apart, it is a home. Further improving their situation is a newspaper article declaring the factory to have re-opened. He eagerly goes there with the thought of that dream house. However, it appears to operate only for a day before the workers go on strike and Chaplin is once more unemployed. Outside, he steps on a board that flings a brick into the air, smashing into a police officer. You can guess where he next goes. While he is behind bars, Ellen gets a job as a dancer at a café. She also arranges for Chaplin to find employment there, as a waiter and a singer. It is in this last capacity that you finally hear his voice. What ruins this situation is Ellen, though not of her own doing. Eventually, the police catch up with her, identifying her as somebody who ran away from juvenile detention. Her and Chaplin evade the authorities. While she is depressed about their situation, he cheers her up by saying that it will be right someday. With that, they walk off down the road.
In Modern Times, Chaplin is focusing on how difficult things are for the working class. He and Ellen only seek to make a living and accomplish modest goals, but circumstance keeps preventing this from happening. As usual, it is Chaplin’s attitude that carries the day. I am not here to make any political statement. Watch the film and judge for yourself. Lord knows, many have done so, then and now, thus I need not repeat any of it. What is somewhat repeated here is the simplicity of Chaplin’s character. Here, as in others, it is not that he is unmoved by what is going on around him, as would be a simpleton. Rather, he takes it all as an opportunity to be kind or find a new friend. God calls us to a simpler disposition. Everything is meant to work for His Glory, great and small, bad times and good. In this film, this comes out beautifully in the end. Remember that he wants to provide Ellen a house. Now, a tramp, which is what Chaplin is most referred to as, does not have the strongest work ethic. A tramp, though, also is open to whatever life provides. Another word for tramp is beggar. Think about what such a person does, sitting on the side of the road with her or his hand open to receive. Chaplin receives, but then it is taken away, receives again, but is denied once more, and so on. With what some may refer to as a string of bad luck, Ellen asks the obvious question: what is the use of trying? Through it all, Chaplin displays a genuine optimism that I wish my fellow Christians would display in the promises of God.
Modern Times is worth watching because it is the last time he appears on screen as his iconic tramp character. Him and Ellen walking down the road arm-in-arm is a fitting send off. From this point on, the political climate in the United States turned against Chaplin, and he barely did anymore films. Thus, when you watch this one, you are seeing the end of an era for not only an actor, but silent film.
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