#376) Modern Times (1936)
OR “Charlie and the Clockwork Factory”
Directed & Written by Charlie Chaplin
Class of 1989
The Plot: “Modern Times” finds our lovable hero the Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) trying to make sense of an age where machinery and efficiency is favored over the well being of people. The Tramp’s adventures find him having a breakdown on an assembly line, going in and out of prison for comic misunderstandings, falling in love with feisty gamin Ellen (Paulette Goddard), and struggling to find work in Depression-era America. Despite this plot synopsis, “Modern Times” is considered one of the funniest movies ever made.
Why It Matters: The NFR praises Chaplin for achieving “a near-balance of humor and pathos”, and also singles out his work with Goddard. There also an essay by Jeffrey Vance, described in his bio as “one of the world’s foremost authorities on Charles Chaplin”. But who has the authority to call him that?
But Does It Really?: No argument here: “Modern Times” is an essential choice for the NFR. The film features Chaplin at the height of his filmmaking career, blending his trademark silent comedy style with an inspired soundtrack and his most socially conscious screenplay yet. “Modern Times” has every right to be on this list, but if I had to pick one essential Chaplin film for the initial 25 NFR roster, I’d go with “City Lights”, but that’s comparing the tastiest apple to the tastiest orange. “Modern Times” holds up quite well for an 80-plus year old movie, thanks to its memorable visuals, strong lead performances, and perennially relevant commentary.
Wow, That’s Dated: As previously stated, “Modern Times” is deeply rooted in the plight of the average American during the Great Depression. Despite illustrating the hardships of finding stability during our country’s worst economic setback, Chaplin still manages to find the silver lining and end on a hopeful note.
Seriously, Oscars?: As always, Chaplin’s status as an industry outsider prevented “Modern Times” from being a serious Oscar contender, failing to receive a single nomination (though the National Board of Review did name it one of the top 10 films of the year). Among the films United Artists opted to promote instead was Best Picture nominee and fellow NFR entry “Dodsworth”.
- After “City Lights”, Chaplin was hesitant to transition from silent films to the now established sound pictures. Unsure of what to do, he traveled through Europe for 16 months, meeting with influential figures ranging from Winston Churchill to Mahatma Gandhi. Chaplin was inspired by his conversations with these figures to tackle a film about more contemporary issues, and “Modern Times” is the result.
- Chaplin originally planned to make “Modern Times” a full-sound feature, and even wrote a complete screenplay. After filming one scene in sound, Chaplin scrapped the footage and rewrote the entire film to be silent, albeit with a synchronized soundtrack. Chaplin is very strategic with his use of sound in his first outing: the musical score carries most of the dramatic weight, effects are only used when needed, and the only spoken dialogue comes from technology (the radio, the phonograph, etc.).
- Look no further than the feeding machine to understand the film’s satire: even the basic process of consuming food is too inefficient in modern times. We can’t be too far away from that technology. That being said, Chaplin gives us cinema’s first automated pie-in-the-face gag.
- The shot of the Tramp being fed through the gears is one of the most iconic moments in film history, and certainly one of Chaplin’s more absurdist. Despite Chaplin’s penchant for multiple re-takes, he would only go through the machinery once; the shot of the Tramp going backwards is the same shot in reverse.
- The Tramp gets arrested after being mistaken for a Communist agitator. Chaplin, if you only knew how weirdly prescient that was…
- Paulette Goddard is a breath of fresh air compared to previous Chaplin leading ladies. It helps that Ellen actually contributes to the plot, and is allowed to have, ya know, an actual personality. Ellen also benefits from Goddard’s naturally charismatic screen presence. Fun Fact: Goddard was very close to being cast as Scarlett O’Hara. She even did a screen test. (But hey, who didn’t?)
- Wow, I was not expecting this movie to have a joke about “nose-powder”. Did the average American moviegoer even know what cocaine was?
- Just a reminder that this film, routinely considered among the greats, is about a vagrant who falls in love with an underage street urchin.
- Ah yes, back when we also gave a crap about rehabilitating our prisoners back into civilian life. Simpler times indeed.
- The roller-skating sequence is always fun to watch. Like all of his movies, it’s incredibly satisfying to see a Chaplin bit that you know has been meticulously choreographed to seem spontaneous and effortlessly funny.
- Classic Movie Law #18: All drunks must be accompanied by the song “How Dry I Am”.
- Did the Tramp and Ellen move into the “Gold Rush” house? It’s in pretty bad shape; they should get Buster Keaton to fix it up.
- Surprise guest star Geppetto as the mechanic.
- Chaplin was very hesitant to have the Tramp speak, fearing it would weaken the character’s universality, so he devised a compromise: the Tramp would sing, albeit in gibberish that borrows from several languages.
- I don’t care how uplifting or perfect that ending is; never tell a woman that she needs to smile!
- “Modern Times” was Chaplin’s final film to feature his Tramp character, and his last “silent” film. Chaplin’s next feature would double down on this film’s topicality by tackling no less than Hitler in “The Great Dictator”.
- Like many eventual classics, “Modern Times” was met with mixed reception and its share of controversy. For starters, German studio Tobis Film sued Chaplin, claiming the assembly line sequence was lifted directly from their 1931 René Clair film “À nous la liberté”. The first lawsuit was dropped, but a second suit in the 1940s was settled out of court. For the record, René Clair was honored that Chaplin might have been inspired by him, and did not participate in either suit.
- Many critics considered the film to be Communist propaganda, so much that Joseph Goebbels banned the film from being screened in Germany once the Nazis took power. A little more fuel for the “Great Dictator” fire.
- Chaplin married leading lady Paulette Goddard a few months after the release of “Modern Times”, though their individual career goals led to their divorce six years later. Goddard’s post-Chaplin career doesn’t have a lot of classics, but she managed an Oscar nomination for the wartime drama “So Proudly We Hail!”
- The assembly line sequence has been spoofed or referenced many times over the years, notably by Donald Duck and Lucille Ball.
- And finally, in 1954, John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons took the romantic theme from “Modern Times”, added lyrics based on the final scene, and called it “Smile”. The song was first recorded by Nat King Cole and has been a standard ever since.