Modern Times (1936)

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*. At one point, before Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin could have been considered the most famous person in the world, and his character of the Little Tramp “the most beloved film character of all time” (I’m quoting Saul Austerlitz, but it’s a conventional judgment). Since then his star has slipped somewhat. You’ll find plenty of cinephiles who think Buster Keaton had more talent, and others who will say that much of what made Chaplin popular hasn’t worn well. Tastes are fickle.
*. I incline toward the negative view. I think Keaton is funnier. I rarely laugh at Chaplin, and find his beloved Little Tramp annoying. I think mainly because he seems to be trying so hard to be liked. Especially in this film, when Chaplin must have known his act was wearing thin.
*. Silent comedy could be subtle and understated, but rarely was. (The only bit of understated humour here, and it’s a scene I really enjoy, is when Chaplin and the Mechanic stare at each other after their tool box is eaten by the machine. It may be my favourite shot in the entire movie.) But the problem with overstated, physical slapstick is that it gives the impression of working too much, At least that’s the sense I have here. There’s really nothing funny going on, which gives the proceedings an air of desperation. Chaplin’s Little Tramp (or Factory Worker, to give him his proper title in this film), is almost manic in his attempts to ingratiate himself.
*. Compounding this sense of a star and a film that’s trying too hard is the grotesque feminine parody of the Tramp’s fluttering eyelids and mincing gestures. In the finale his nonsense song is played out like a burlesque strip-tease, something that should be performed in drag.

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*. David Thomson: “The delicacy of Chaplin’s own features, the Italianate daintiness of his gestures, and above all, the mooning after misty emotional contentment are feminine characteristics as conceived by an exquisite man. . . . The history of bisexuality in the movies begins with Chaplin.”
*. And it gets worse. Note how Paulette Goddard is introduced as such a masculine figure, with her blade clenched between her teeth pirate-style while stealing bananas (!) at the dockyard. Even while her father was alive she was clearly the man of the household, just as later she will be the one who goes out and gets a good job (and a house) while Charlie is incarcerated, then sets him up as a waiter and singer/dancer in the same establishment she works in. Even her title, “A gamin,” is masculine (the feminine would be “gamine”).

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*. You may miss a point of etiquette when Goddard greets Chaplin after being released from jail the second time and they walk off down the street. They start with him walking next to the wall and her closer to the street. This was not considered appropriate at the time (and in some circles still isn’t today). The man is supposed to walk next to the street. It may be significant to their confusion of gender roles that she adopts the male position. He corrects her . . . and promptly walks into a lamppost.
*. Goddard is terrific here, and practically steals the show from her co-star in every scene they’re together. But again I’m put off by bad vibes. Chaplin would become Goddard’s second husband, both of them twice her age. She’s 24 here and Chaplin 47.
*. Perhaps we’re just more sensitive to this today, when we keep hearing stories about how women are regularly cast as romantically attached to actors twenty years or more older than they are. But I still get a Woody Allen feeling seeing Chaplin and Goddard together. And I also think there’s something dishonest about the presentation of the relationship between the factory worker and the gamin. On the one hand it’s innocent and asexual (they don’t just sleep in different beds but different buildings, and they both like playing with toys in the department store), but on the other it’s clearly meant as a romantic coupling (his imagination of their life of domestic bliss together, her “sleeping beauty in furs” moment). This is having it both ways, and it adds another level of creepiness.
*. Why is the factory foreman the only guy who doesn’t wear a shirt? He seems shockingly underdressed.

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*. Nothing dates like sentimentality. We look back upon the sentiments of earlier days with disbelief, and sometimes even disgust. Chaplin’s sentimentality was extreme I think even for the time. It’s hard not to compare him to Dickens, both for his status as a popular entertainer with a social conscience, and in psychobiographical terms. They shared the experience of their family’s fall from respectability and the effective loss of their parents, leading both to construct idealized (that is, sentimental) versions of respectable, bourgeois home life: something they both felt exiled from, or that had been stolen from them.

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*. The structure is episodic, built around a series of short set-piece sequences of the kind Chaplin started off in. There are some leitmotifs and themes, but there’s little in the way of story at work.
*. I’m not even sure this movie is really “about” anything. It sets up an already trite critique of industrialization in the factory sequences, has the usual little guy vs. the authorities material, some innocent socialism, and then an ending where our heroes pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and head down the road again. Toward what will surely be more of the same.
*. Is it political? David Denby: “It is impossible, of course, to find anything more than a very coy flirtation with radical politics in Modern Times. The film derives its power from its rejection of twentieth-century urban life, but that rejection is largely aesthetic and moral, and we are hard put to deduce any specific political line from it.”
*. This is worth unpacking just a bit. In the first place there is Chaplin, again, as the coy flirt, only this time in a context where we might not expect it and probably don’t look upon it as charitably. I think the word most often used of such flirts is “incorrigible.” They just can’t stop themselves.
*. But then there is the rejection of twentieth-century urban life. Perhaps in 1936 this was still a viable option, and one that could find some philosophical or even practical justification. Since then, however, the masses have embraced that life, despite its irrationality and even inhumanity. And basing his rejection on moral and aesthetic grounds points to the essentially nostalgic character of Chaplin’s thought. This is a movie that looks backward.

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*. Is the title then ironic? Perhaps more so than it seems. We think of that final shot of Chaplin and Goddard walking together down the road and it seems as though they are riding off into the sunset, leaving a world that has passed them by. But this sequence is supposed to be taking place at dawn, so they are really walking toward a rising sun. One senses a disconnection between what is literally happening on screen and the tone it is presented in.
*. It’s certainly not a bad film. The balletic routines are as polished as any ever filmed, and a number of scenes have gone on to become iconic. But it was already dated in 1936, and not just for being a rather queer sound-silent hybrid. Chaplin had a real interest in major issues of the day, but he saw them from a nineteenth-century point of view. He was older than he looked, and much, much older than he wanted to be seen as being.

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One thought on “Modern Times (1936)

  1. 2016

    Chaplin was actually pretty damn socially progressive for the time in which he lived, so much so he was exiled for it. More than can be said for your barely disguised contempt for minority sexualities and non-heteronormative gender roles.

    Reply

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