Modern Times (1936) ****
Written, directed, produced, music by Charles Chaplin. Stars Chaplin and Paulette Goddard. Photography, Ira H. Morgan, Roland Totheroh. 90 minutes. Not rated.
A masterpiece. One of the best movies ever made. Perhaps Chaplin’s very best. And you can watch it in a new, digitally restored print and sound. Yes, sound. Charlie ‘s previous films were without spoken dialogue although, past a certain date, they did have built-in music and sound effects. But no talk yet sound films had been around for several years time by 1936. Here you get everything, but used in bits and in special, creative ways.
Back in 1931, the French master of comedies, Rene Clair, had made a fully spoken film “A Nous la Liberte” (Liberty is ours,) a gem. It was about two jailed friends. In prison they make toys in assembly lines that dehumanize the workers. The pals escape, one remains a proletarian, the other rises to the ownership of a record factory (those 78 rpm things, you know) where assembly lines also dehumanize the workers. Etc. etc. After they meet again, and together they become hunted men (again), they take, happily, to the road.
Chaplin was inspired by that movie and made Modern Times—which has many aspects in common with the French picture. Clair did not mind. He took it rightly—as a flattering homage to his film.
Modern Times is a satire-comedy set in America’s Great Depression days. Endlessly and splendidly, as an actor, writer, director, composer you name it-- he offers us a howlingly funny critiques of capitalism, mechanization, automation (a term not used then, I suspect), prisons, the police and authorities of many sorts, etc. etc. It takes the side of the unfortunate, jobless workers yet never loses its humor. It is also a love story.
It is as funny (yet also serious) as anything you can think of. Charlie (in his last Tramp incarnation) achieves perfection. The film is silent yet it is not. Note the sound effects, the music, the use of non-Chaplin songs (“Halleluyah I’m a Bum.” “If I had the Wings of an Angel,” and more.) Note the gags, the use of noises (including the body’s). There’s even a gibberish song that he sings and in which there is a wealth of distorted “real word.” Also, among the “marvels” of modernism there’s, to my knowledge, the first appearance of a two-way television screen as the boss spies on the workers and gives orders.
Space being restricted for my notes I cannot mention the amazing inventions, twists, tricks and directions of this absolute marvel of a film. Let me just say that if you have not seen “Modern Times” at least five times, your life is tragically incomplete.