Today! Because we ain’t burglars, we’re hungry –
Modern Times (1936)
Directed by Charlie Chaplin
Starring Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Tiny Sandford, Al Ernest Garcia, Sammy Stein, Chester Conklin
Not completely unlike my affinity for bad movies, low budget movies, homemade remakes of blockbusters, and 1930s boilerplate romances, I can always appreciate a silent movie, within reason. Silent dramas can be tough – the acting is so out of date, and the by-and-large cheap sets don’t exact hold the attention – but shorts, sci-fi, and feature comedies are totally in my wheelhouse. Yet, as much as I enjoy a Buster Keaton or a Harold Lloyd or a Fatty Arbuckle or a Mabel Normand, there are only two silents cracking my top 400, and only one made during the silent era. This is not that film.
Modern Times was a full nine years after The Jazz Singer, and Chaplin simply was not ready to let it go. Hell, the plot of this film has been interpreted as Chaplin’s reaction to the advent of sound pictures – technological advancement racing past regular folks’ wants and needs – but I don’t get that overall vibe. While the film industry may present itself however it likes in retrospect, the movie doesn’t get overly down on mechanized society, beyond the terrific opening sequence with the Tramp working in a factory, and developing repetitive stress insanity from his line job. After that, it touches on a lot of typical Chaplin themes – trying to fit in to society in general, not taking a ton of guff from blowhards, helping out the downtrodden, and roller skating being an insane, fatalistic enterprise.
[I broke my arm on roller skates when I was ten, so I may be reading into this a little]
But while I’m a huge admirer of The Gold Rush and City Lights, for my money Modern Times is his best wall-to-wall silent (okay, it’s only 95% silent, there being a handful of spoken lines and one goofy song, amidst a bunch of sound effects). It is one brilliant comedic set piece after another – the cog in the machinery, inadvertently leading the workers parade, foiling the prison breakout, waiting tables, and that death defying roller skating! Sure, Paulette Goddard makes as about as convincing a vagrant as I do an NBA All-Star (My shot was okay, but I’m Dustin-Hoffman-in-Cuban-heels on a good day!), but her interplay with Charlie is completely winning, and the movie gleefully skates along, even with multiple incarcerations and conks on the noggin. It’s damn near a perfect film.
It’s been rightfully hailed as an all-time classic, but in his day, Chaplin didn’t win a ton of competitive awards – a few honorary Oscars and a nomination here and there for other movies. So let’s give out the one that I’m sure would’ve occupied the center space on Chaplin’s Hollywood Squares of Life – Best Force-Feeding Worker Productivity Machine, a terrific bit of physical and prop comedy in itself.