In 'Modern Times' the Little Tramp Steps Out of the Past and Into the Future One Last Time

This film features incisive social commentary, a charming relationship of equals, some of Charlie Chaplin's most iconic slapstick, and it looks ahead with playful speculation and scintillating savvy to the future.

Modern Times

Director: Charlie Chaplin
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman
Distributor: Criterion
Release date: 2010-11-16
"Modern Times. A story of industry, of individual enterprise – humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness. –- the opening title of Modern Times

Charlie Chaplin’s first significant dalliance with sound -- made at the zenith of his popularity – stands proud in a career of almost incomparable brilliance, and represents one of his finest achievements. It features incisive social commentary, a charming relationship of equals, some of his most iconic slapstick and – though predominantly rooted in the concerns of its time -- it looks ahead with playful speculation and scintillating savvy to the future.

Set during the Great Depression, Modern Times is Chaplin’s final picture featuring his iconic character the Little Tramp, who had been the subject of over 70 films (both features and shorts) from 1914 onwards. Although his character in Modern Times is officially listed as “A factory worker”, his dress and antics are unmistakably that of the diminutive vagrant.

In addition to Chaplin bidding farewell to a beloved character, Modern Times marks a crucial juncture in the legendary filmmaker’s transition from silent filmmaking to sound. His previous picture, the hugely successful City Lights (1931), featured a minimal amount of sound and a synchronised soundtrack, but Modern Times was originally conceived as Chaplin’s first talkie. For reasons which remain unknown however, he changed his plans at the last minute. So, although Modern Times advances on City Lights, in that it features a limited amount of canned dialogue, sound effects and even a song (the gibberish of which represents the first time Chaplin’s voice was heard onscreen), it's still predominantly a silent picture, with the requisite inter-titles. Chaplin’s subsequent picture, his daring Hitler parody The Great Dictator (1940), would be his first official talkie.

The somewhat episodic structure of Modern Times gives us a number almost self-contained chapters, distinguished by their locations. When we first encounter Chaplin’s endearing buffoon he is working in a vast expressionist factory on an assembly line. His (traditional) incompetence infuriates his co-workers and, after a number of skilfully executed encounters with various bits of high-tech machinery (including a feeding machine), our hero suffers a nervous breakdown and is briefly institutionalised.

After his release, a mix-up leads to him being mistaken for the ring-leader of a strike and he is arrested. However, he serves only a short time in prison before he is pardoned after thwarting an attempted jailbreak. He secures a job in a shipbuilding yard but this lasts mere moments before calamity strikes and he finds himself destitute. It's at this point that he meets “a gamine” (played by Paulette Goddard), who is similarly hard-up and has escaped being taken into care after the death of her father. The two join forces touchingly and embark on a series of further adventures.

As Jeffrey Vance, a Chaplin historian, points out in his accompanying visual essay Modern Times: A Closer Look, Modern Times came about after Chaplin’s 16-month world tour which followed the premiere of City Lights. During this prolonged excursion he saw the wide-reaching consequences of the Depression and encountered some of the most influential figures of the time including Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, George Bernard Shaw, Gandhi, and H.G. Wells. Inspired by the hardship he witnessed and the ideals of those he met, he wrote a series of articles about his trip called "A Comedian Sees the World". Chaplin was also influenced by his desire to cast his then-partner Paulette Goddard (with whom he enjoyed a relationship of equals) in a suitably substantial role. As a result, the film was both his most socially conscious to date and his most inclusive; it depicts the Little Tramp paired with a woman of spark and practicality, who is not reduced to a love-interest, nor forms the butt of jokes.

In David Robinson’s commentary, he shows how Chaplin presents us with an unusual set-up between his factory worker and Goddard’s gamine (misspelled as the masculine “gamin” within the film). Despite their dreams of domesticity and eventual attempts at ‘playing house’, their lack of a physical relationship is made clear whilst she beds-down on the floor of their ramshackle home, he is confined to the ‘dog-house’ outside. Chaplin himself described their relationship as that of, “spiritual escapees from a world in which they saw no other hope”. Despite their easy rapport and obvious affection for one another, there isn’t a flicker of romance between them. Their relationship is utterly innocent – it is as if they are, in Chaplin’s words, “two playmates, partners-in-crime, comrades, babes-in-the-wood.”

The film’s iconic theme, which first appears in a sequence where the impoverished Chaplin and Goddard imagine domestic bliss, was transformed 30 years later into the song Smile (with lyrics by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons) and was eventually popularised by Nat King Cole. Although Chaplin could not read or write music, he is credited as the film’s composer (as well as, of course, the director, writer and star), developing the melodies and working closely on the arrangements.

Criterion’s stonking two-disc presentation comes replete with an extraordinarily, almost exhausting, array of extras. The film’s commentary is executed with commendable authority and insight by Chaplin biographer David Robinson. As well as talking us through the detail of the film, he gives us ample context relating to the era and to Chaplin himself. The aforementioned 16-minute visual essay by Jeffrey Vance is terrifically illuminating and is accompanied by stills taken during the film’s production. Elsewhere there are: essays by Saul Austerlitz and Lisa Stein; two excised sequences; three trailers; John Bengtson’s Silent Traces: Modern Times which focuses on Chaplin’s use of location; and, an interview with composer David Raksin from 1992 in which he recalls his time working with Chaplin on the film’s musical arrangements.

In the 20-minute A Bucket of Water and a Glass Matte, Ben Burtt and Craig Barron discuss the use of visual and sound effects in Modern Times. This is particularly fascinating when it comes to their expert discussion of the (incredible) glass matte effect used to give the impression that Chaplin was skating blindfold next to a precipitous drop. Other extras featured include Alistair Cooke’s 8mm movie of Chaplin and Goddard -- taken on a weekend voyage to Catalina Island and entitled All at Sea -- and Chaplin’s 1916 two-reeler The Rink, of particular relevance here due to a comparable roller-skating sequence.

For the First Time is a short film by Cuban documentarian Octavio Cortazar, who in 1967 followed a group of projectionists introducing the magic of the movies to rural communities. It captures the laughter, joy and fascination on the faces of assembled villagers who are presented with Modern Times 30 years after it was made. Finally, in Chaplin Today: Modern Times the socially conscious Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (themselves formidable talents) wax lyrical with their own reactions to the film.

These two final extras perfectly illustrate the film’s enduring legacy and the breadth of its appeal – taking us from the innocent glee of those experiencing cinema for the very first time, to the informed musings of two dynamic modern filmmakers. They show us how Charlie Chaplin both entertains and inspires with his universal language of comedy and humanity, and that this is particularly true in the wonderful Modern Times.






A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.