In Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’ the Little Tramp Steps Into the Future

Although rooted in the concerns of its era, Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times looks with playful speculation and scintillating savvy to the future.

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.

RATING 10 / 10