Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times is a wonderful little film. It is in effect a series of shorts strung together and connected by the two leads, Chaplin’s tramp and Paulette Goddard’s gamin. The tale is about how the machine age has taken over industry, throwing men on the streets with no jobs or money to keep their families afloat. In a brilliant stroke of ingenuity, Chaplin decides to scrap the idea of making this a “talkie” and allows only machines to have a voice. For instance, if the boss needs to bark orders, he does so through a tv screen and if Mr. Billows needs to explain how his feeding machine works, he plays a record containing his full speech. The sound effects are great and the visuals stunning, especially while at the factory. What its essentially a silent film at its core, Modern Times is so much more. A commentary on technology and the dream of making a home for the ones you love, it is also a very sharp comedy that will have you laughing throughout with its physical gags.
During the course of his travels, Chaplin’s tramp gets mixed up in some impressive set-piece jokes. From the assembly line shenanigans, to the giant gear trappings, to the feeding machine, inadvertently leading a Communist march, a couple stints in jail, a department store disaster, a dilapidated house, and the struggles of waiting tables, he always finds a way to get out of trouble. With all these things happening, the film can appear a tad disjointed, but as his character continues to evolve and the title-cards give us elapsed time, it still holds together as a complete story. A king of physical laughs, Chaplin never holds back either. His nervous breakdown at the plant shows his dedication to the comedy by being unable to shake the arm motion of his job even when he is outdoors and, of course, the rollerskating stunt later on is impressive. I’d be interested to see how that was shot, either composed post-filming to add the drop, or if he really was that close to the edge.
You can’t deny the man’s gift as an artist. How each vignette plays out is inventive and humorous on its journey. Even the moments with the beautiful Goddard are funny in their own right. Her manic facial expressions and piratelike mannerisms while stealing bananas on the docks during her introduction bring some good laughs. Her character is used pretty much as a straightman to Chaplin’s lunatic, but she plays the part well. The dream sequence of the two living in a nice house with fruit hanging at every window is priceless and the final scene at the restaurant is a riot. With her trying to help him out in getting a steady job and him mucking it all up to end up needing to sing in gibberish, it is the best part of the movie.
While I feel people of all ages can appreciate the film on its own merits—the comedy is broad and kids will enjoy the stunts and bodily harm stuff—it does contain some adult situations. Besides the Communist march mentioned previously, there is a short scene with Chaplin drunk along with a more lengthy part with him after imbibing some “nose powder.” It is never actually labeled as being drugs and the scene could be effective still without knowing what the powder is, so one should not use it as the sole reason to not show it to children. Modern Times is a classic on many levels and has proven so by standing the test of time for seventy years thus far.