Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Modern Times (1936)

Fig 1 - Modern Times Poster
Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times reflects on a great many themes in it's hour and a half of screen-time, including the struggles of the working classes, the technological parallels between man and machine in the Depression era and generally just the pitiful state of the world at the time. From the opening shot in which we see a herd of sheep bustling towards the camera fading into a shot of commuters bustling out of a train station, the tone is well and truly set for a delicate sprinkling of social commentary.

From here we are guided through a Nineteen Eighty-Four-style factory, complete with gargantuan screens for the all-seeing President of 'Electro Steel Corp.' to spy down on his inferiors. One of which, as it turns out, is Chaplin's affable Tramp himself, whom presumably drove away the blind girl from City Lights in some hilarious off-screen antics and somehow got a gig tightening bolts like an automaton. As is evident in the violent jolts the Tramp lets out while off-duty, it is clear that the pressure of such repetitive work has taken its toll. After a full-on mental breakdown, he is taken to prison in which he prevents an escape attempt and is eventually rewarded with his freedom, only to find that life behind bars was a much more preferable choice at this point. In his attempts to get himself re-arrested, the Tramp meets a 'Gamin' (Paulette Goddard) who shares his struggle and they hatch a plan to find the work to afford a picturesque picket-fence lifestyle.

Fig 2 - Modern Times - the Tramp caught in machinery
Looking back on the recent Chaplin I've reviewed, I'm still in favour of City Lights as the pinnacle. What Modern Times has in terms of scale and political ideas, it lacks in consistency and structure. Not to say I didn't enjoy the film. Chaplin is clearly as smart and meticulous as ever in his direction. And his commitment to the longevity of the 'silent era' with the use of dialogue cards demonstrates that he stood by his convictions. I suppose the flow of the narrative was the only issue to me, though admittedly City Lights didn't have nearly as much going on in the background to draw from, so the comparisons are somewhat moot. Paulette Goddard also makes an impressive performance as a street urchin for whom the social and economic climate has brought upon great misfortune.

The film is certainly laden with experimental shots which elevate it somewhat from Chaplin's previous works. One shot in particular shows a side-on perspective of the Tramp being digested through a series of mechanical cogs, a shot which in addition is even reversed soon after. Another shot saw the factory's overseer catch the Tramp taking an unwarranted break in the lavatory, matching up two completely different shots and even suggesting the idea of CCTV.

Indisputably, Modern Times is a conscientious and well-constructed film with more than enough laughs to make it through the depravity of its setting. A timeless reminder that even in our darkest hour, we must keep on smiling.



Fig. 1 Modern Times Poster (1936) From: Modern Times - Directed by: Charles Chaplin


Fig. 2 Modern Times Screenshot (1936) From: Modern Times - Directed by: Charles Chaplin


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