Chaplin’s brilliant film imbues his signature physical comedy into a tale about unemployment, homelessness and modern industrialisation, poignantly marking the end of the silent era in American cinema.
Cast: Charles Chaplin, Paulette Goddard
Plot: From the hospital, to prison, to unemployment, The Tramp gets caught up in the sprockets and cogs of modern industrialisation. That is, until he comes across a kind orphaned girl.
Subject Matter: Moderate – Unemployment; Industrialisation
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
I remembered I was slightly underwhelmed by Modern Times when I first saw it more than a decade ago. It was probably because I was so madly in love with City Lights (1931) that everything else felt poorer in comparison.
Revisiting it now, however, as a (hopefully) more mature cinephile, I think I missed out on the greatness of this brilliant film by Charles Chaplin.
Poignantly marking the end of the glorious silent era in American cinema (even as Chaplin defiantly took it years into the ‘talkies’ that first began in 1927), Modern Times imbues his signature physical comedy (also his last outing as The Tramp) into a tale about unemployment, homelessness and modern industrialisation.
One of the most famous scenes in Chaplin’s oeuvre sees him plunging headfirst into a set of rotating gears, only to be ‘rewound’ out—and as Chaplin historians have imagined, isn’t this also an image of a filmmaker navigating the insides of a film projector?
“This letter will help you to get work. Now make good.”
In other words, Modern Times is not just an elegy for the end of silent cinema, but a ‘let’s go back to the start’ tribute to one of the medium’s most iconic figures.
Joining Chaplin is the effervescent Paulette Goddard (who would become his wife in real life before divorcing only six years later), playing a gamine who crosses paths with The Tramp.
Build around a number of flat-out hilarious set pieces, notably in a factory, department store and restaurant, Modern Times also marked a phase in Chaplin’s life when he became more involved in political and social activism.
In that regard, one could view Modern Times as not just an entertaining comedy, but the director’s first significant attempt in expressing the woes of institutions, society and humanity through irony and satirical means. He would become even bolder with arguably his most controversial film, The Great Dictator (1940).