Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Modern Times (1935)

Charles Chaplin Productions/ United Artists
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard

#33 on AFI Top Laughs
#81 on AFI Top 100 (1998)
#78 on AFI Top 100 (2007)
National Film Registry

It had been a long five years since we last saw Charlie Chaplin on screen in his classic feature City Lights, a silent film produced and released years into the sound era of motion pictures, but still hailed as an all-time great film. Chaplin, as perhaps the most famous independent filmmaker of the time, after years of tireless work would finally return to the screen once again in Modern Times, a feature still made in the style of a silent film with the lovable Tramp character, but with a synchronized soundtrack of sound effects, music, and limited dialogue. It would be awkward to produce a silent picture a near decade after sound had come into the equation of film production, but as Chaplin would not have it, The Tramp was a silent character that spoke the universal dialectal of sight and body language, composing a highly entertaining picture with humor and heart. The long wait would be worth it, but it would be the final time we would officially see the silent character that made Chaplin the filmmaker he was.

Modern Times is a Charlie Chaplin silent comedy that features the Tramp as a man struggling to find work in the modern work of industry, many times getting in to trouble with the law, all the while pursuing an American dream of freedom and the pursuit of happiness. The Tramp (Chaplin) runs through many troubles as a character struggling with financial troubles and issues of work. Starting as a factory worker doing the same mundane task and forced to carry out impractical practices he succumbs to a mental breakdown that lands him in jail. Discovering humorously that in jail he lives better than in the real world, he amusingly attempts to be arrested many times after his release. Along the way he meets a beautiful downtrodden young lady (Paulette Goddard) whom he sparks a relationship with, dreaming of a meek, comfortable life in a place of their own in a husband and wife manner. Luck comes their way as she finds success as a dancer, landing The Tramp a job as well as a waiter and entertainer. He fails as waiting tables with comical results, but finds to be great entertainer improvising a song of gibberish to the delight of an audience. Despite the bright future, the two are chased away from their promising jobs for their past crimes, but leave us with the couple walking off down the deserted road with hope of pursuing their dreams.

The film produces the same joy and entertainment that we had once came to love about Chaplin and his beloved character. Despite being produced in the sound era the picture brings out the simple joys of movies and how we can be entertained by visuals alone, perfectly understanding the story without the aid of dialogue. Chaplin is a masterful storyteller, but here he also makes political statements about the working situations of men, as well as quick jabs at law enforcement. Chaplin does so in good fun, but creates the point of how men are now being treated as equipment rather than human being in the working environment of the modern factory. His stylized environment of the factory makes for points of humor and labor injustice at the same time; not an easy feat to be funny and political in a time of economic unrest under the Production Code. Somehow Chaplin, with his years of very beloved experience as perhaps the most well known silent star of the screen, is able to make jokes about sensitive issues in the film, that of a Communist uprising and even drugs as Tramp mistakenly takes cocaine for salt while in prison. These would normally be questionable subjects in any other film, but Chaplin manages to work them into his story.

To play the co-star to Chaplin as The Tramp’s poor, but ever hopeful lady friend is Paulette Goddard.  Mostly seen up to this point as one of the “Goldwyn Girls” in the Samuel Goldwyn series of features, Goddard would meet Chaplin with Charlie planning Modern Times as a feature that would use her as his co-star. The two would marry the year of Modern Times’ release, 1936, marking her second marriage and Chaplin’s third. She brings to the film an energy and zest for life that makes her and her character attractive, making for a long successful career in film and television.

Chaplin, a very determined filmmaker that painstakingly toiled over every inch of his films, struggled with the idea of whether the film was to be a silent feature or a “talkie.” He would come to the conclusion, as he did when he made City Lights, that the Tramp was a silent character and it would tarnish all that be built up for this personality if he opened his mouth and was not understood by most of his audience, pertaining to foreign markets. Therefore the film was to be a silent picture, but not completely, as there was to be a synchronized soundtrack of sound effects as well as a musical score composed by Chaplin himself. The film was mostly shot in silent film pace of 18 frames per second, and played back as the regular 24 frames per second, which speeds up the action, creating a zanier feel to the hijacks of the Tramp at times. There are, however, still moments of spoken word. A voice over would be used for a television monitor in the factory to manifest technology ahead of its time. Also for the first time we hear the voice of Chaplin in his film as he entertains by singing a song of gibberish much to the delight of an audience. Here The Tramp for once breaks his silence on screen, but is done so with nonsense words that are for entertainment purposes rather that to actually say anything, therefore not necessarily creating a true voice for the character.

Critics would initially struggle with the idea of a primarily silent feature was being released when silent films were very passé and old. Despite that initial drawback audiences still clamored to see one of the world’s best known stars. The film cost a near $1.5 million, due to Chaplin’s length of shooting and editing which took years to do, but brought in over $7 million in profits. In time the picture proved to be a classic and one of Chaplin’s very best. In 1989 the Library of Congress would preserve the film in their collection of America’s most treasured film, a member of the first class in which the Library did so. The American Film Institute would honor the film as one of the finest examples of American filmmaking by placing it on the organization’s lists of top movies produced in the country’s history. (#81 on 1997’s list of Top All-Time, #78 on 2007’s Top All-Time list, and #33 on the 2000 list of Top Laughs.

Modern Times share similarities in tone and message seen in a 1931 French feature À nous la liberté, a picture that also shared a distain to the monotony and sorrows of industrial factory life, written and directed by René Clair. Both pictures shared the same tones and ideas, at times sharing similar actions as men worked on the assembly line. Clair thought nothing of the similarities the two films shared, but the producers saw Modern Times as a plagiarism and took the issue to court. Chaplin claimed to have never seen the French film that inspired the lawsuit. World War II would interrupt the suit for years, but eventually Chaplin settled out of court with a cash sum realizing it cheaper to settle than to fight the issue. The whole time Clair, though intellectual creator but not owner of À nous la liberté, was embarrassed by the whole ordeal, feeling more flattered by the likeness to Chaplin’s film than offended.

 Today Modern Times is a treasure that though is produced in the mid 1930s embodies the spirit of the silent era as well, bringing with it the simple joys of the motion picture, further supporting Charlie Chaplin as one of the most beloved entertainers of the twentieth century. It lives on as one of his finest films that stands on many film historians best lists, entertaining audiences to this day.

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