johnlink ranks MODERN TIMES (1936)

My soon-to-be-five-year-old son has a number of favorite movies. He loves WALL-E and THE INCREDIBLES. He is a huge STAR WARS geek and also digs SHORT CIRCUIT. He loves robots and so he loves, well, ROBOTS and IRON GIANT. But, also, he has become something of a Charlie Chaplin fan. And his favorite of the Charlie Chaplin movies is ‘the one with all the gears’, or, as we know it, MODERN TIMES. I’ve seen pieces of this movie about a dozen times so far this year, but yesterday was the first time I sat down and watched it all (with Quinn by my side) for the first time in about a decade.


I watched MODERN TIMES (1936) on 8.24.15. It was my third viewing of the film, and first in about ten years.

It takes quite a star and quite a bit of clout to be able to make a silent film half a decade after everyone else stopped. But Charlie Chaplin was that star in 1936 and he also had his own studio, which gave him the clout. In full disclosure, there is some talking in MODERN TIMES (this was originally scripted as a talkie), but it is used strategically by Chaplin.

This is a film about how modernization has sped up the depression. Industry is seen as literally making the Tramp (Chaplin, of course) go crazy. His job as an assembly line worker is so monotonous and strenuous that he breaks, sending him to jail. Chaplin, as a writer/director, uses actual voice to show ‘futuristic’ video screen communications, over an intercom, and on a radio. Nobody in the ‘real’ world speaks vocally. Instead this world, truly The Tramp’s world, is the familiar land of silent films. People speak dialogue we don’t hear and any bits of information deemed important are offered via title card.

Soon enough, The Tramp ingratiates himself to the prison guards and is given a posh cell in which to finish his stay. The rest of the film has him altering between trying to get back to prison and trying to stay out of prison in order to hang out with his new lady friend (Paulette Goddard, who was involved with Chaplin at the time). She is known as A Gamin, and she lives on the streets stealing bread and bananas for herself and her sisters before the system makes her a true runaway vagrant.


Goddard’s first appearance on screen in this film is, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, one of the most beautiful shots of a woman on film ever. She is steely, crafty, beautiful, vulnerable, and instantly likable. Goddard, in fact, manages to hold her own and even sometimes upstage Chaplin in a way that arguably hadn’t happened since he costarred with a young Jackie Coogan in the 1921 film THE KID. Goddard’s performance is vital to making MODERN TIMES a part of the Chaplin canon short list.

Not that Chaplin is every truly overshadowed. This is a film which contains several top-shelf Chaplin bits including the scene with Chaplin being pulled into the machine, the feeding machine scene, Chaplin accidentally doing cocaine (somehow this was fine by the film board in 1936), the prison fight, the roller skating scene, the second gear-trap scene, and the scene where Chaplin – a waiter by now – is trying to serve a man his roast duck. All of these are overshadowed in the end by Chaplin using gibberish to sing a song to which The Tramp could not remember the words. Chaplin insisted the voice of The Tramp – finally being heard on film – be gibberish so that his language remained universal. The scene is magnificent storytelling.

MODERN TIMES is all joy, in addition to the snapshots mentioned above, another Chaplin fan might list off another half-dozen favorites from the film. The story is one of perseverance and loyalty. There are no villains for the most part (except maybe in the prison escape scene), merely people who don’t understand each other. That our Tramp is always on the wrong end of these misunderstandings is a given. It is the grace with which he accepts all ills which makes the character so famous.

If you see just one Chaplin film it should probably be either MODERN TIMES or GOLD RUSH or THE KID. All are superb. All are vital films.




FINAL SCORE: 8.25 out of 10

~ by johnlink00 on August 25, 2015.

2 Responses to “johnlink ranks MODERN TIMES (1936)”

  1. Even if you don’t have a preference for silent films. Modern Times is still a very good watch.

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