1 Year, 100 Movies #78 Modern Times (1936)

by Trey Hock on August 28, 2010

in 1 Year, 100 Movies,Columns

For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!

Alright, from this moment forward you’ll have no more excuses about why you can’t watch silent films. “Modern Times” is the movie that will make them accessible. This film is so entirely fun and watchable that it will change your mind about silent film.

It is no surprise that Charlie Chaplin had the success and acclaim that he garnered. Onscreen, this guy can charm your socks off. His motions are fluid, and his expressions are always surprising, funny, and never forced. This is not the reinterpreted Chaplin of impersonators, the over-the-top, the forced, the awkward. This true Chaplin borders on magical genius.

Written, directed, produced, scored and performed by Chaplin (think this guy was a control freak?), “Modern Times” follows the Tramp as he struggles to make it in a world that is overly mechanized and populated by the unemployed, a world that many of us know only too well these days. The opening scene sets the tone for Chaplin’s comedic critique.

Like sheep through the chutes, the people all move in unison towards the factories. Every movement is synchronized and unforgiving. At every turn, the factory owners look for ways to squeeze out more efficiency. They even look to eliminate lunch breaks through automation.

This world does not put the workers or people first. People must conform and twist themselves until they can accommodate the needs of the machine. They must become one with it.

Only when the Tramp reemerges from his union with the cogs and wheels of the factory does his job become inspired. Now he sees bolts in need of turning everywhere. He sees the true nature of the world around him. His repetitive stuttering motions are no longer without meaning, but a means of communication. This of course gets him into trouble and out of a job.

The Tramp pushes on, and through a series of hilarious and accidental incidents, he gets thrown in jail for leading a Communist march. Upon his release, he falls in with the Gamin (a street urchin, or guttersnipe – see, you need to watch more silent films if only for excuses to say guttersnipe) played by the exceptionally stunning Paulette Goddard.

After a number of failed attempts to return to jail–where he is well liked, gets regular meals, and has a place to sleep–the Tramp, in a move to care for his newfound companion, gets a job as a night watchman. When everyone has left for the night, the Tramp and Gamin have the place to themselves. After a meal, the pair decides to explore the toy department.

This scene exemplifies the sheer brilliance of Chaplin’s physical acting abilities.

I’m sure there is camera trickery going on, but who cares. Chaplin’s movement, timing, and expressions are without flaw.

This film has many laugh-out-loud funny moments, but it also critiques the industrialization of society and revels in the human spirit. The final scene is wonderful and rivals the last shot of “The Graduate” as far as its complexity.

The Tramp and Gamin have secured steady work based on their talents, but police, who accuse the Gamin of vagrancy, chase them off. Both the Tramp and Gamin escape, but their future is uncertain.

This is genius. We could argue all day about whether this scene is about the resiliency of the human spirit in spite of growing industrialization, or that it shows society’s loss of humanity when all that is left to two charming and talented individuals is a smile, an empty road, and a sunset. Really, it is all of this and more.

Chaplin would take some criticism for overtly referencing René Clair’s “À Nous La Liberté” (To Us, Liberty), but neither director seemed to get too addled by this critique. In fact, there is evidence that both men were flattered that they shared each other as inspiration.

What ever its inspiration may have been, “Modern Times” is a cinematic masterwork in its own right, and one of the three films that makes Charlie Chaplin a dominant presence on AFI’s list.

Next up #77 “All the President’s Men”

1 Year, 100 Movies #79 The Wild Bunch (1969)

For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)

For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Rosie August 30, 2010 at 1:28 pm

I certainly wouldn’t like being force fed at work, but I do envy the lunch he’s served.

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