It is difficult to review Chaplin's movies objectively because many of us have seen them, or at least have heard about them, since we were young. They have become part of our emotional and/or cultural background.
Chaplin is arguably the only complete director: in most of his pictures, he also produces, acts, writes the script, composes the music, does his own stunts and edits. His talent and reputation generated numerous commercial successes, even when he continued directing silent movies after their time. "Talkies" were the only films produced after 1927, the few silent attempts afterwards were failures; yet Chaplin was an exception: "City Lights" in 1931 and "Modern Times" in 1936 were sensations worldwide (the latter includes a few sounds but they are marginal). This is remarkable since nine years is an eternity in cinema timeframe. Only in 1940 did Chaplin direct a talkie.
*** WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS ***
Is the movie a comedy? Partly: tragi-comedy is Chaplin's trademark. In my opinion, there are three levels of humour.
1. Pure amusement, sometimes as in slapstick: the tramp eats all he can to be sent to jail and even buys more when he is with the policeman; he is drugged in jail; the tramp and the gamin imagine their life in an idyllic house; the tramp roller-skates close to an edge in the department store (fabulous stunt); he makes a lousy waiter but a great actor at the end. Again, I am not certain how much of the fun is derived from childhood memories and/or the fact we feel younger as we watch the film. To enjoy it fully, we must lay aside some of our adult critical sense, notably towards old-fashioned cinema.
2. No humour, just drama: the gamin's father dies; her sisters are taken away; the tramp crashes his way through the crowd to get a job (an efficient illustration of ruthless competition).
3. Amusement with a dramatic twist: these are the most frequent scenes, and probably the best. We grin even as we laugh. The movie opens on sheep moving grouped (of which a black one: an allusion to the tramp?), that fade out to workers coming out of the subway. This must have been a shock for the audience during the Great Depression. Another example is one of Chaplin's most famous scenes ever: the tramp tries the eating machine. It is at the same time hilarious (Chaplin really gives all of himself here) and pathetic: a metaphor on ill-conceived progress, oppression of man by machine and conditions of workers obliged to comply with strange requests.
Other scenes include: the entire first part in the factory, including when the tramp is stuck in the machine (inside shot, that became iconic), which also happens to a colleague later on (outside shot); the tramp launches by mistake an unfinished ship into the sea, with footage of an actual ship that was probably sunk because of the Depression; the tramp and the gamin make most of their shabby hut.
The movie efficiently alternates these three levels of humour, as well as its rhythm. It famously starts as a whirlwind with dynamic tempo and music. And it ends like a roller-coaster: funny musical (the tramp sings), emotional (he is hired), dramatic (the police arrest the gamin), thriller (they run away as climatic music plays), melancholic (they are on the road, free but uncertain). The last image is rightfully double-edged: the tramp and the gamin walk away, but mountains ahead block their road. She looks like an elegant lady, he looks a bit like a clown with his funny walk and big shoes. We don't know where they are going, nor do they.
Hence Chaplin's ambition was far more than to just divert. Themes depicted eighty years ago are still modern:
- Crisis, redundancies, strikes, inequalities, social unrest
- Working conditions in factories, even though exaggerated by humour and symbols: productivity, control, burn-out
- Technology that dehumanises: chain-working, the eating machine, video surveillance (a science-fiction element at the time). Remarkably, the only sounds of the film are coming from devices, not humans: screen, phonograph, radio
- Success with talent, work and some luck
- The law. The topic is prominent (the police are omnipresent) and ambiguous. Can one steal food to survive? Chaplin seems to excuse this behaviour. The tramp is on both sides of the law: he steals food but helps the police arrest villains in jail. And the police's role is complex; notably, they shoot an unarmed man, followed by the ironic card: "The law takes charge of the orphans"
- Violence and drugs in prison
The universal dimension of the movie shows by the fact the main characters have no name: the tramp, the gamin. Chaplin will be blamed for its social topics during the McCarthy era, among other grievances, and he will be forced to exile. Considering it now, this seems ridiculous since the message of the film is not communist: the tramp and the gamin want everything but change society; they search for a job, a home and respect. Note also Lincoln's portrait in the tramp's cell: he is a patriot.
The movie does not take sides. Workers can be friendly or violent. Policemen can be friendly (e.g. in jail) or violent (one purposelessly pushes the tramp outside the factory). Prison inmates can be honest (the tramp) or villains. Women can be attractive (the gamin) or not (all others, actually). This double-sidedness also divides individuals. Big Bill was bullying the tramp in the factory, but later sympathises with him. The gamin steals and then becomes settled. The tramp will do anything to protect the ones he loves (the gamin, children), but can abuse almost anybody else to achieve it: a recurrent feature in Chaplin's pictures.
The underlying message seems to be: people are not good or bad, it mainly depends on their conditions. Yet another modern theme.