Modern Times

Modern Times (1936) movie poster

(1936) dir. Charles Chaplin
viewed: 12/29/03 at Castro Theater, SF, CA

I really have seen a shamefully small amount of silent film, despite being moderately exposed to it as a child. And despite the fact that the only silent films that I have seen are all pretty much “classics” that utterly recommend seeing more and more. I even know someone who works on San Francisco’s annual Silent Film Festival. I am ashamed and have every right to be.

And actually, when I saw that Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times was playing at the Castro, I almost didn’t put it on the schedule to see. Somehow it seems so obvious? Of course, the great irony is that I had never seen it and when hard pressed couldn’t name a Chaplin film that I had seen in even not-so-recent memory. So, I shamed myself into it. And I’m glad. It was fantastic.

Released in 1936, already several years into the age of the sound film, Modern Times is more or less a silent film. Chaplin uses voice over for voices that come from machinery or radio, some sound effects, and ultimately for a song that his character, “the little tramp”, belts out at the end of the film. I don’t know much about this film or enough specific Chaplin history to do justice to the subject here, but I understand that this film was originally going to be a “talkie”, Chaplin’s first, and for some reason, he ended up approaching sound in this particular way.

Large parts of the film, all set in the factory, seem to reckon heavily of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), but with art design played for humor rather than wonderful art deco decadence. It shares some themes with Lang’s film (I don’t know that it was an influence, but am positing), the dehumanization of the industrial workplace, some proletarian revolt, and it’s been so long since I have seen Metropolis that I won’t try to push this further.

The use of sound, particularly in the factory sequences, reinforces the notions of mechanization and dehumanization as well.

Chaplin himself is amazingly funny. It’s something to see, not to be read about. I also found Paulette Goddard, “a gamin” is what her character is known as, quite amazing, too. With her hair down and a simple dress on, Goddard looks very contemporary, and extremely beautiful. She is excellent throughout, but has a great introductory scene where she is hacking bananas off of a big banana bunch and throwing them to the poor children. When she is seen and chased, she makes a deft getaway and then stands, feet apart in triumph and eats a banana. Writing it here, sure it sounds stupid, but it’s a compelling image that I would encourage any and everyone to see.

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