Modern Times (1936) was a landmark film for Charlie Chaplin, being his last silent feature and the last time he would essay his trademark character of the “little tramp,” the persona which had made him famous and which he had perfected in dozens of silent shorts and a handful of features. Although it may have seemed a little perverse to be making a silent feature a good nine years into the talkie era, in retrospect it seems to have been a wise choice. Chaplin’s brilliance lay in his physical eloquence, his expressive face and the ingenuity of his sight gags. Even his slapstick was rarely a bid for a cheap laugh. His tramp character had a preternatural gracefulness that allowed him to emerge from dangerous situations unscathed. A largely passive spirit who inadvertently blundered into trouble, he seemed like someone who was less against the world than not quite a part of it. One suspects that a talking tramp would have been somewhat diminished, a little too earthbound.
Not that the movie is entirely silent; a few voices are heard but only through some technological aid like a public address system, a recording or on the radio — or, in what for the time was a sci-fi touch, via a large television screen. There’s also a lot of music, all written by Chaplin, as well as sound effects and crowd noises. This heightens our awareness of Chaplin’s choice of having all the characters’ conversations silent. It’s a willful anachronism which emphasizes the movie’s theme, which is a protest against modernity.
The film begins with Chaplin working in a steel mill as a bolt tightener on an assembly line, a job of such manic repetition that it leads to a nervous breakdown. After he is discharged from his job, the story becomes a series of anecdotal misadventures, the tramp’s burden lightened by an encounter with a character simply billed as “the gamine” (literally a female street urchin), played by Chaplin’s then-wife Paulette Goddard. The film is crammed with classic and still hilarious set pieces — our hero roller skating blindfolded near the edge of a precipice; mistakenly ingesting some cocaine and beating up some hardened criminals; innocently (always innocently) finding himself at the head of a Communist protest march — as well as many smaller moments between Chaplin and Goddard which manage to combine an old-fashioned grand-gesture type of acting with a great deal of emotional nuance.
Another reason for Modern Times’ abiding effectiveness, aside from the genius of its comedy, is the way it makes sentimentality not only palatable but appealing. For example, an integral part of Chaplin’s score is the song “Smile.” It’s a bittersweet melody which, taken out of context, can be a little saccharine. But here, as the recurring motif that signifies the tramp and the gamine’s hopeful against-all-odds bond, it is, like the rest of the film, sublime.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday, Feb. 2. Call 313-833-3237 for more details.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].