10 March 2004 | rmax304823
Arguably Charlie's best film. Maybe not his funniest but his best because there's so much more to it than the Keystone Kops kind of pratfalls that he so commonly used.
Frankly I don't know how the guy did it, being so consistently humorous without using any words. All of it depends on a story simple enough to be followed visually and on Chaplin's genius for mime and situation construction. There ARE some words spoken on screen -- this was his last holdout against talking pictures -- but none of them involve people speaking directly to one another. There is a song at the end with gibberish lyrics. And the rest of the speaking is always filtered through some mechanical medium, a record player, a radio, a television set.
Charlie was accused of communism somewhere along the line and pretty much thrown out of the country, after which he lived in Switzerland. You couldn't tell he was a Commie from this movie. It comments on its time, of course, the Great Depression, and Charlie and Paulette Goddard are two poor people. Management is shown as callus, playing with a jigsaw puzzle and reading newspapers while the workers slave away on the assembly line. There is even a communist demonstration. But it's all played for laughs. One of those red warning flags falls off the back of a truck passing down an empty street. Charlie picks up the flag and waves it, shouting after the truck. As he begins to hurry after the truck, still shouting and waving, a horde of dissatisfied workers silently falls in behind him and he's arrested. Poor people steal, but they only steal food. If having sympathy for the unemployed is communism then roughly one American out of three was a communist, because that's roughly what the unemployment rate was. "Modern Times" is no more communistic than, say, "My Man Godfrey" or "Salt of the Earth" or "The Grapes of Wrath."
Besides that, Charlie is no classical Marxist. Marxism posited a transition from "false consciousness" (the feeling that one's miserable poverty was due to personal failure or bad luck) to "class consciousness" (the realization that exploitation by the property owners was at fault). Charlie is no activist. He fumbles every job he gets. The other workers are hardly sympathetic. Charlie's not a working class hero but a black sheep. The opening shot of the herd of sheep hurrying past the camera includes one black sheep in the middle of the flock and it's hard to imagine that this was accidental.
Actually, Charlie had lost a lot of respect in America because he had an eye for young girls. His second marriage resulted from a sixteen-year-old girl's (faked) pregnancy. Paulette Goddard, who became his third wife, maybe and maybe not, was twenty when this movie was made, and Charlie was forty-three. In any case -- boy, if you want to get Americans heated up just combine sex with politics. A sure-fire winner for the puritans. (It may have cost Goddard the part of Scarlet O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind" because she may have been living in sin with Charlie at the time.)
I don't want to spell out too many of the gags because I don't want to spoil them but be alert for the feeding machine that goes berserk and shoves lug nuts down Charlie's throat and hits him in the face with a corn cob. Charlie looks as if he's strapped helplessly into his seat, but his hands were free under the rotating table so that he could manipulate the fiendish devices himself.
The first time I saw this movie was in the Arts Theater on Springfield Avenue in Irvington, New Jersey. When Paulette Goddard first appeared, the man on my right chuckled and said, "Now that's a good-looking babe." On my left, my marmorial ex laughed out loud during the feeding machine episode for perhaps the only time in her life. There can be no higher recommendation.