Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Movie Review: Modern Times (1936)

This movie is a must-see Charlie Chaplin film. Chaplin originally imagined it as a talkie and you do hear his voice for the first time in film but it's only to ad-lib gibberish to the tune of Leo Daniderff's song, "Je cherche apres Titine". The movie stars the Little Tramp character in his final silent film performance and concerns him trying to survive in a modern world. The first image we see is a herd of sheep that fades into a group of people exiting the subway and should give you some idea of what Charlie thought about modern industrialization.

The Tramp works on a conveyor belt at Electro Steel tightening nuts on some irrelevant piece of equipment while the President works on jigsaw puzzles. The scene reminded me of the "I Love Lucy" episode where Lucy and Ethel have similar problems only its with chocolate. Then poor Charlie must submit to the indignity of his boss force-feeding him with a new time-saving machine. I just about died during the corn scene. All of this puts a lot of strain on the poor tramp's brain and he ends up whacked off his gourd.

The remainder of the movie involves, mistaken Communism, "nose powder", a hilarious scene with eyebrows, Paulette Goddard, roller skates, a department store, a dog, a roast duck and a cabin that looks suspiciously like the one in "Gold Rush".

The reference to "nose powder" or drugs in the prison sequence is somewhat daring for the time as the production code, established in 1930, forbade the depiction of illegal drug use in films.

The Good:

I love Chaplin's imagination. It's so evolved from what I expect when I watch a 1903s movie. I love that he manages to find the humour and absurdity in everything, especially in automation and the modern world in this film. I also really appreciate the fact that for an hour and a half it helped film goes during the Depression to think about something other than their own poverty. I guess other people liked it too because in 1989, the Library of Congress deemed "Modern Times" to be "culturally significant" and selected it for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.

The Bad:

I think Chaplin was just having fun with this film because it's very light, very surfacy. That's my technical speak for saying that there isn't much going on under the surface. There's no deep meaning or message he's trying to convey to us about the world other than industrialization is a bit silly sometimes.

Also, while I appreciate the fact that Chaplin tried to create transitions between settings, the various scenes at the factory, at the prison, the house and the restaurant felt like individual skits mushed together. The film starts off being about 'modern times' but that idea isn't carried through the entire movie. In fact, the only constants are Chaplin and Paulette Goddard.

This is Paulette, the leading lady of the film who apparently made some significant story contributions. Chaplin ended up marrying her, a situation that often happened with his leading ladies. But can you blame him?

The ending is very "It Happened One Night", walls of Jericho and this movie, barring parodies and novelty films, was the last major US film to use silent film conventions like title cards for dialogue. The last dialogue title card belongs to The Tramp, who says "Buck up - never say die! We'll get along."

Because of the mistaken Communism made fun of in the film and other movies made by Chaplin, the House Un-American Activities became convinced he was a Communist. Chaplin flatly denied the charges and left the country to settle in Switzerland, vowing never to return.

And now, for my favourite still from the movie, I present to you, the happy-go-lucky Tramp in all his glory.

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