If not for Godzilla films, what else seems to be a passive tradition when it comes to March of the Movies? Black and white films from the silent era! I’ve seen films starring Charlie Chaplin in (now) three years and one from Buster Keaton in another. These two figures have sort of a soft spot in my heart for whatever reason.
The film for today is considered among Chaplin’s best: Modern Times, an eccentric tale with some pointed criticism at every leftist’s favorite target: capitalism and the struggles of industrialization. Generally, I try not to be too political with topics if it absolutely does not call for it, but the subtext contained here is simply too bursting. And for me, that’s where a lot of it stands out amongst the rest of his work.
For this post, I’ve declined to provide a synopsis before the actual review because the film does an excellent job of telling the story right from the get-go. Though it may be more honest to say that the plot kind of moves as Chaplin does.
More of a “setting,” really, the Tramp is working in a steel mill. The usual tomfoolery of his person gets him into trouble and eventually jailed, then goes into many different directions from there. What’s important here is actually in the few opening scenes of the film that hardly feature Chaplin at all.
Machines whirring at a crisp pace (for now). A powerful man giving orders from the comfort of his office. A shirtless henchman ensuring that the power source of the factory is working accordingly. Whistles and uniformed beeps controlling workers like drones, indicating when they can and cannot be working—they must punch out and punch back in without delay, of course.
Eventually, a machine is introduced prior to the Tramp running amok. Placed into it against his will, Tramp is subjected to machinery essentially simulating a full-course meal, feeding him at a designated pace and wiping his mouth upon delivery of the sustenance. It eventually breaks down, as is the nature of untested equipment, to which the factory owner bemoans that it is “Not practical.” How ironic of a statement to spit considering the treatment of the workers underneath him.
People may tune into Chaplin’s films for the humorous bodily antics that he gets into. Whether being chased around or leaping from dangerous positions, his penchant for slapstick is legendary. When it comes to Modern Times, however, there is much at work in the foreground that isn’t so explicit. This is not terribly surprising given future films such as The Great Dictator, but Chaplin seems to hold some poignant opinions on the state of reality in which his films are based.
Further on, a female lead joins the fray, who is homeless. Her sisters are taken away by “the law,” but she manages to get away. (As a slight spoiler, but humorous nonetheless, she never brings up her sisters again afterwards!) To survive, she resorts to petty theft, but it’s hard not to empathize with her; she’s homeless, after all! (Something else worth noting is that there’s quite a bit of running away from police in this. Perhaps this is another criticism of overpolicing?)
A portion of Modern Times even finds Tramp wanting to stay in jail—he claims he’s happy there. Who could blame him? He has no job, no home; at least behind bars, he’s provided meals, a roof over his head, and structure. Hell, the treatment of prisoners by the police was somewhat reminiscent of the treatment of employees at the factory. Coincidence?
Should one look for it, there are several different observations one can make throughout the runtime. Ironic parallels and imagery of direct competition for survival are placed in plain sight, hidden to those who pay half-attention. It’s easy to assume that it has a lot to say; for that, it’s both an amusing Chaplin film full of frenzied frantics and a story of ideals.
While Also Slightly Non-Modern
The events described in the prior section are all the good I can conceive of the film. Still, my standards for these materials of older days still cause some grievances, even if fewer this time around.
Its first half was much stronger than the second. Past the forty-minute mark or so, I began to grow a little weary with the events that transpired. Little came through as all that insightful to me, instead relying on a lot of the same antics that Chaplin tends to fall into. Wasn’t quite as humorous, simultaneously overstayed in their welcome.
Such is all the more unfortunate because it also comes during the stronger scenes revolving around the female lead. Her relationship with Tramp is somewhat unique for the time—she doesn’t fawn over him. They seem to have more of a mutually beneficial relationship of survival, like (another) point of showcasing how encouragement and empathy goes further in finding happiness than trying to achieve more than others alone. Modern Times‘s closing shot convinced me to bump up my score by another .5, just because I thought that message shown through beautifully.
Alas, it’s not an entirely enthralling film. As stated, some moments are a little drier than others, and the random bits of lost continuity (I would really think the female lead would mention her sisters) tend to add up. Certainly not the most realistic perception of reality (obviously), but there are certain things that almost go against the supposed messages of the film. That, and the multiple failings of the police are almost comical.
I understand that black-and-white films from the ’20s and ’30s can be a hard sell to some. For those looking to get into them, though, this would be a great first start. (I’d also recommend The General.) Chaplin is fairly good in general, I think, but the political subtext behind this being more palpable than normal (probably?) is what cements it as perhaps his magnum opus. Certainly the best of his filmography I’ve seen thus far. While not always attention-grabbing, it pulls no punches when it comes to soul.
Final Score: 8/10
The rating for all other films can be found at Letterboxd.
For more, check out the March of the Movies Archive!
Thank you for your time. Have a great timezone.