Modern Times
Director: Charlie Chaplin. Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Allan Garcia, Henry Bergman, Tiny Sandford, Sam Stein, Murdoch McQuarrie, Cecil Reynolds, Myra McKinney, Chester Conklin, Stanley Blystone. Screenplay: Charlie Chaplin.

The best of Charlie Chaplinís films, and I think Modern Times is his very best, are as miraculous as his famous body: they lurch and reel and lean and bounce and backflip in all kinds of unpredictable directions, at unexpected moments and with alarming energy, and yet for all their exuberant activity they preserve a joyful, incredible balance.

Sometimes ďbalanceĒ means that a movie is able to see two sides of a polemical issue, or present all of its characters with equal degrees of detail, or preserve a steady pace and equanimity even as a plot accelerates or a situation worsens. None of these are virtues of Chaplinís films, or at least of Modern Times, where the idea of ďbalanceĒ communicates something much different. Itís the ability of a person, a performance, or a movie to keep moving forward no matter how buffeted by circumstance. Itís the ingenious way in which Chaplin constructs delirious, one-of-a-kind vignettes that lead more often than not to expert punchlines, and yet he always finds unforeseen ways to carry each of these madcap situations through a developing narrative line. That said, the plot of Modern Times has plenty of gaps, pauses, and hasty transitions. Itís a little bit of a spastic picture, but itís never too spastic, and we have the feeling while watching it that a more controlled rhythm or reined-in energy wouldnít just dampen the fun of the movie, it would fundamentally alter its message . . . which states, roughly, that the more things change, the more they really do change, but good-hearted people will endure, find love, keep their heads above water—even when the water, as in one hilarious sight-gag, turns out to be much shallower than you think.

Modern Times, one of the very first and most deserving inductees into the National Film Registry, belongs in lots of pantheons. One of these, shared with such tonally disparate pictures as Singiní in the Rain and Sunset Boulevard, constitutes the cinemaís most sublime odes to its own primal scene, its passage from silence into sound. Chaplin is surely the most recognizable face of American filmís silent era, even (perhaps especially) to people who have never seen a silent film. The arrival of synchronized dialogue and fully integrated film sound with 1927ís The Jazz Singer spelled a certain end to Chaplinís archetypal ďTrampĒ character, and yet he still managed to create two of the Trampís most enduringly popular incarnations, 1931ís City Lights and Modern Times, after even Garbo had started talking. Though the key dichotomy of blindness and vision places City Lights in an interestingly foregrounded relation to its medium, Modern Times is even more fully and wittily self-conscious of its relation to the cinema, mostly by frustrating expectations in a wonderfully jokey way. Despite titling his picture Modern Times, Chaplin avoids talking throughout, and regularly resorts to such archaisms as intertitles and expressionist acting. In most cases, diegetic sound is placed on the side of an antiseptic, troubling modernity—humming surveillance devices, the buzz of merciless factory machinery—which further implies Chaplinís allegiance to earlier modes. Then again, he draws inspired laughs out of sounds as simple as the gaseous gurgle of a stomach, so Modern Times is never dour or reactionary; you can tell that sound is a new toy in Chaplinís eager hands, even if he loves playing it against itself, and against our own appetites. Late in the film, he elaborates a plot conundrum where it appears as though the Tramp will be forced to sing—a nightmare for the character, but a titillating prospect for his fans. What happens? The Tramp forgets the words and improvises a cabaret-style chanson in a pidgin dialect that makes no sense.

The exquisiteness of the joke and its contextual pay-off, plus Chaplinís ingenious physical comedy during this most oral of set-pieces, compensates for the dashing of our hopes, and this in a way, is a perfect capsule of why Modern Times is itself so perfect. The movie finds the comedy in the dashing of hopes, though it has both the verve to be funny for funnyís sake when it feels the urge, and the fortitude not to tidy up or erase every dark stroke in the picture. Orphans are not un-orphaned, and some of them permanently vanish. Lovers on the lam stay on the lam. The sidewalks and roads all feel dusty, as well they might in 1936. Though this is hardly The Bicycle Thief, Chaplin shows real conviction in evoking the dehumanizing routine of the assembly line, the political roils of factory strikes and Communist agitation (Eugene V. Debs was hardly a distant memory), and the chintzy desperation of Depression-era have-nots. When Paulette Goddard, iconic as the Gamine, takes a job as a dancer in a café, the film never asks us to forget, even amidst all the ensuing slapstick and mirth, that sheís stuck in this dumb and rather sleazy job. Itís easy to peg Chaplin, as so many do, as a sentimentalist and a political naïf, and itís true that his romanticized view of (much younger) women, his easy targeting of industrial coldness and cruelty, and his attempts to heal national strife with a kiss and a smile are not exactly badges of sophistication. But whatís the point of critiquing him this way?

Chaplin is legitimately a genius, and hasnít much use for sophistication, at least not the kind which these oft-rehearsed critiques seem to desire. What he managed across his career, from the one-reel shorts of the 1910s to at least the acrid satires of the late 1940s and early 1950s (I donít know his later work, like A King in New York), was an essential contribution toward keeping certain avenues of cinematic grammar open. After the first spectacular experiments which made the movies possible, and even popular, it wasnít long before their popularity became grounded in the joys of narrative. It canít be stated often enough that popular cinema was not strictly fated to be a narrative format, and Chaplin was one of the essential figures who directed energy and art to other aspects of motion picture-making. He still spins a good story, but they are spare and fitful stories, stringing themselves together via the precisely and lovingly choreographed mini-farces that crowd his movies. Chaplin, a superstar, still managed to avoid giving the Tramp any real psychology, privileging instead the characterís total flexibility and almost insane elasticity under all kinds of pressures and in the face of all kinds of madness. He endeared the figure to audiences without providing much hint of personality, just the sheer vitality of clowning, racing, hopping, wooing, flattering, buffooning, and walking that uproariously ducky walk. In an expensive medium driven by technology, and underwritten by all kinds of psychological projections, affectionate identifications, and offscreen gossip, the Tramp is something unique: complex without being remotely ďthree-dimensional,Ē a person who is essentially the sum of his odd tics, cheeky mannerisms, felt hat, and funny mustache. This persona is a retro creation, the sympathetic clown, but in all of his endless and irreverent invention, he is also the most modern thing in the pictures. The case could be made, I think, that Charlie Chaplin was the best special effect in decades of moviemaking.

Every part of this picture radiates the care of its construction, and also the sheer eccentricity of Chaplinís design. Who else could or would pump extended minutes of comedy out of a single sound (the gurgle) or a single gesture (the twitchy, Pavlovian repetition of his assembly-line duties) but dispenses with huge, complicated pieces of production design (the ornate interior of factory machinery, an enormous wooden ship knocked out of its stocks) in mere seconds of screen time? The sequence of the story isnít what you expect, either. Several times, Chaplin introduces a new scenario or environment—the shipyard, the cabaret, or the Gamineís shack (reminiscent of the brilliantly used lean-to from The Gold Rush)—and then surprises you with how quickly we leave it. A sanitorium plays a major role in the plot, and in the Trampís life in particular, and we never even go there, whereas we return again and again to a prison, where Chaplin defies our growing certainty that he wonít find any better material there than heís already found. The arrangement of scenes, not to mention their content, is a constant interplay of Chaplinís dares to the audience, tests of himself, ripostes to the cranks and killjoys in the supporting cast, and blithe raspberries to prudish complacency. A sequence involving a white, hallucinogenic ďnose-powderĒ is one of the most censor-baiting in the movie, and gets even more laughs in contemporary screenings than the famous Feeding Machine of J. Widdecombe Billows.

Which reminds me, too, that even though that Feeding Machine is a more devilishly perfect comic sequence than most filmmakers achieve in a lifetime, Chaplin has the impudence, or is just the impishness, to position it a mere fifteen minutes into the picture, daring the rest of Modern Times to measure up. Truly, the film breaks every intuitive rule of screenwriting and story structure, and it gets away with everything. It finds two separate uses, equally great, for roasted fowl. If you know that Modern Times was not much of a hit at the 1936 box office, or if you detect in the movie itself a poignant sense that this style of comedy will soon be foreclosed by the evolving tastes produced by a rapidly transforming medium, youíre liable to find Modern Times unexpectedly moving, a knowing elegy to itself that is always about many more things than just itself, and an essentially sad picture that is also a fundamentally exuberant one—the kind of film where a man walks into his belovedís (dilapidated) home and his hat flies off his head in sheer, courtly delight. You canít separate whatís crazy about Modern Times from what is well-reasoned, whatís soft-hearted from what is sad and scared, what is improvised from what is meticulously planned, what is big from what is small. You can only get on board with the whole kit and kaboodle, the frenetically forward-moving current of laughs and perpetual climaxes, all the way to the eloquent, open simplicity of the finish. And then you can watch it again, and again . . . Grade: A+

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