Classic Movie Review: Modern Times (1936)

TitleModern Times
Release Date: February 5, 1936
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Production Company: United Artists

Modern Times is Charlie Chaplin’s light satire of industrialization, the Great Depression, and inequality in capitalist America.  It’s also his clever jibe at the new-fangled talking motion pictures, about a decade old at the time of release.  While Chaplin’s Little Tramp and other characters act in pantomime with title cards providing dialogue, this is most definitely a silent movie.  In fact, it has a full sound effect track with spoken dialogue, albeit almost always processed through machines.

The movie begins with the Tramp working in a factory where he ends up literally a cog in a machinery.  The Boss keeps an eye on the workers through screens, more than a decade before George Orwell wrote 1984. The Tramp ultimately has a nervous breakdown.  Upon release from the hospital, he inadvertently ends up leading a Communist march and is sent to prison.  While in prison he inadvertence uses cocaine.  I’m amazed that Communism and cocaine made it past the production code, but it’s all very funny.

After release from prison, he meets a young orphaned woman, Ellen (Paulette Goddard), and they team up for survival.  There’s something about Goddard that makes her look strikingly modern to me.  Plus, she has a very alluring manner of tossing bananas to street waifs.  They get a job as a night watchman at a department store, which involves roller skating close to the edge of a balcony.  Later she finds a ramshackle house for them to live in. The Tramp finally gets another job in a factory, and on the first day his boss falls into the machinery.  Two jokes at expense of labor, as the Tramp stops trying to rescue his boss when the lunch whistle blows.  Then all the workers go on strike even though they’ve only been working a few hours.

In the final sequence, Ellen gets a job as a dancer at a cafe and helps the Tramp get hired as a singing waiter.  You read that right, the Tramp who never talks is supposed to sing.  The tension builds as first he has to deliver a meal to an angry patron through the crowd of dancers.  Then it’s time for him perform, but he forgets the word.  So he sings a song entirely of gibberish.  What a brilliant introduction of the Tramp into talkies by having his pantomime still be the key to his performance even though he’s singing.  It’s also the final official appearance of the Tramp on film, and it ends with the Tramp and Ellen walking into the sunset.

I think this is my favorite Charlie Chaplin film yet, although I’m also quite fond of The Great Dictator.


Podcasts of the Week Ending March 14

Scientific American :: Coronavirus Hot Zone: The View from the U.S. Epicenter

Insightful reporting from Washington during the early days of the coronavirus outbreak.

99% Invisible :: Map Quests: Political, Physical and Digital

I love maps and the curious things that they can show us.

What Next :: If Prisoners Could Vote

Felony disenfranchisement has denied millions of American their right to vote. Interviews with prisoners gets their opinion on voting and their insights into politics.

Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Appearances in 2020