Charles Chaplin in Modern Times (1936)


(director/writer: Charlie Chaplin; cinematographers: Roland H. “Rollie” Totheroh/Ira Morgan; editor: Willard Nico; music: Charlie Chaplin; cast: Charlie Chaplin (Worker), Paulette Goddard (Gamin), Henry Bergman (Cafe Owner), Chester Conklin (Mechanic), Hank Mann (Burglar), Louis Natheaux (Burglar), Tiny Sanford (Burglar), Allan Garcia (President of a Electro-Steel Corporation), Ed Le Sainte (Sheriff Couler), Dick Alexander (Cellmate); Runtime: 87; MPAA Rating: G; producer: Charlie Chaplin; United Artists; 1936-silent)
“Chaplin’s last silent and the last time he uses his signature character of the Little Tramp.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Chaplin’s last silent and the last time he uses his signature character of the Little Tramp (familiarly garbed in a small derby, mustache, baggy pants, tight jacket and cane). It’s not entirely silent, as sound is used (coming from machines) and Chaplin even sings a nonsense song of gibberish in his own voice. By this date, Chaplin’s comedy is becoming too familiar to seem fresh and his simplistic politics can be construed as naive, but his pantomime is still masterful as is his eye-opening sketch of a poverty-stricken individual during the Great Depression. The film, shot from 1932 to 1936, takes its theme from the opening title about the horrors of the Machine Age and the pursuit of happiness by the masses. It reflects the concerns of the nation about poverty, starvation, unemployment, crime, and political and labor unrest.

Chaplin’s an assembly-line worker in the electro-steel art deco factory who goes batty over the following issues: trying to keep up with the fast pace of the conveyor belt, a despotic boss who spies on all his employees via a big-brother TV monitor (even in the men’s room), as a forced volunteer to be a guinea pig for an experimental automatic “feeding machine” contraption that goes haywire and leaves him battered (the film’s most involved and pleasing gag–that shows an attempt by the bosses to make even chow time more work productive), and the Little Tramp’s fall into the running machine (which is symbolic for man’s entrapment in capitalism). After Chaplin is cured in a mental hospital for his nervous breakdown, he’s told by the Doc to “avoid excitement.” On the street, he immediately gets swept up in a labor demonstration and mistakenly gets arrested as a communist leader. In prison, he artfully stops a prison break which gets him a pardon. Upon his release the grateful sheriff gives him a letter of recommendation for a job, but Chaplin was treated to meals in jail and wishes to return rather than face life’s hardships on the outside. Chaplin tries to take the rap for the barefoot Gamin (Paulette Goddard), who steals a loaf of bread and is chased by a cop. They soon end up together and endure a long fight for survival by avoiding the police and trying to find work, as he secures work as a nightwatchman, in a mill, and as a singing waiter. By the conclusion they take the high road along the California highway, as Chaplin tells the despondent orphaned vagabond who is tired from being chased by the police and facing hunger: “Buck-up — never say die.”

The social protest comedy comes by way of multiple sight gags. The Henry Ford set piece assembly-line serves to show how the bosses could care less about the worker’s safety or mental health, but only about the worker’s productivity. There are many inventive gags that bring out Chaplin’s rebellion at the workplace in much the same manner as his other comedies, as he’s the everyman figure who represents the masses and articulates through his actions their pressing concerns over their loss of humanity. As always, Chaplin’s great timing and physical ability to act out the slapstick gags are superb.