26 August 2001 | Anonymous_Maxine
Charlie Chaplin's own deeply impoverished past plays an extensive role in the theme of his film Modern Times, which is probably the most potent of his dozens of films that deal with the difficult lives of th
It is a testament to Chaplin's filmmaking skills that he is able to impose such significant meaning on what really boils down to little more than a series of comedy skits strung together on an apparently flimsy clothesline of a plot. Indeed, the cinematic value of Modern Times is unquestionable, but it is ironically noteworthy that such a simple and even blocky plot is made into such a memorable film experience and delivers such a strong, time-transcending message about poverty stricken populations.
It is no secret that Charlie Chaplin was more or less dragged into the sound era against his will. In the early part of the 20th century, he had built a tremendous career as a silent film actor, and had created a character, the Tramp, that was purely a silent film character who could not be transported into the sound era. Charlie had built his career and his popularity with the Tramp, and the coming of sound to the cinema meant the end of that character (as illustrated by Robert Downey Jr.'s Charlie Chaplin in the 1992 film Chaplin, `The Tram CAN'T talk. The minute he talks, he's dead.'). Chaplin delivers to the world a cynical satire about modern technology as well as his own ode to the silent film with Modern Times.
Charlie plays the part of a man who works a dehumanizing position in a factory in which he is little more than a component of a machine, and he is controlled like a pawn by the menacing boss, who we see mostly as a looming face on a tremendous television screen. Clearly, the most memorable scenes in the film involve something to do with the factory, such as Charlie's brief trip into the innards of the machine, as well as his warm-hearted efforts to feed lunch to a man who has inadvertently become lodged in a machine, with only his head free. However, there is a very noteworthy but fairly subtle subplot that quietly reveals Chaplin's fondness for the silent film.
The first and most obvious thing is that for the most part, this is a silent film. There are intertitles, there is precious little dialogue, and the film's main character doesn't utter a sound until near the end of the film. But there are also a lot of other things that more subtly hint that silent films are better than sound films. For one thing, the only intelligible words spoken in the film are done so through some sort of barrier. There is the factory boss speaking demandingly through the television screen, and the feeding machine company speaking through the radio as they try to sell the feeding machine to the factory boss. This becomes the most obvious by the fact that anyone speaking on screen - such as the factory boss as he tells the men that the feeding machine is not practical - only does so in intertitles. We know that dialogue can be put in the film, but Chaplin chooses only to do this in a detached and mechanized way.
There is also a very strong example of Chaplin's endless sympathy for poor people at several points in this film. The most significant example of this is his interactions with the Gamin, played by Paulette Goddard, as well as his nearly constant contempt toward the police. After the scene where he gorges himself at a small diner (note that the window said `Cafeteria: Tables For Ladies'), he casually calls an officer into the diner and tells him to pay the tab, unable to pay it himself. As he is handcuffed to the officer, he gets a cigar from a nearby vendor and hands some large candy bars to a couple of small children nearby, who look to be the type of children who are never sure where their next meal is going to come from.
Charlie plays a hard working, lower class man in Modern Times, and no matter how badly he just wants to get some good work and earn a living so that he can buy a house for himself and Paulette, things constantly seem to go wrong for him. It seems that this bad luck is used to suggest that poor people are not poor as a result of their own shortcomings, but because they just can't seem to work their way up to a better life, no matter how hard they try. This social commentary is intertwined with such skillful intricacy with the story about Chaplin's love of silent film that there is really no switching back and forth between the two. Modern Times strikes me as especially memorable because it is a very simple story that is punctuated by a series of comedy skits, yet it also delivers several different messages that are important to society as well as to the filmmaker himself. In this way, the movie almost seems to deliver these strong messages without the audience even being aware that they are being presented with these issues. It is a great way to mix entertainment with important societal topics, and Charlie's decision to finally have the Tramp utter vocalized speech is done so in an endlessly watch-able song and dance scene, adding to the immeasurable number of film skits for which Charlie Chaplin will be remembered and loved.