Silent films were already old-fashioned and out of vogue in 1936 when Charlie Chaplin completed his last silent feature film, Modern Times, almost ten years after the sound revolution began with The Jazz Singer. A silent film consciously made for the sound era, Modern Times is a comic masterpiece that remains approachable today even for movie lovers raised on computer imaging and surround sound.
Partly this is because of Chaplin’s concessions to the new era: The film does have a synchronized soundtrack including sound effects and limited dialogue couched as "sound effects" (i.e., dialogue that ostensibly comes from onscreen loudspeakers or record players, not from onscreen actors, whose speech is represented with traditional title cards), as well as Chaplin’s own score (music had always been integral to "silent" film anyway) and even a very unique song sung by Chaplin himself, that somehow contrives not to contain what would ordinarily be termed lyrics. (Chaplin thus wrote, directed, starred in, scored, produced, and sang and danced in Modern Times, not to mention doing his own stunts, including some extreme roller skating and a headfirst dive into a few inches of water. The man was too cool for school.)
Another factor in the continuing accessibility of Modern Times is the lasting influence of Chaplin’s work. More than one scene in the film will seem strangely familiar to modern viewers watching it for the first time. For example, fans of Lucille Ball will discover that the most memorable gags from the beloved "job-switching" episode — Lucy at a chocolate factory, struggling to keep up with an accelerating conveyor-belt assembly line and goaded by a pesky fly into running afoul of a hostile coworker — were inspired by directly parallel events in Modern Times’ brilliant opening sequence at an industrial plant. Yet, in spite of this incipient familiarity, the film still has surprises up its sleeve, as Chaplin brings the conveyor-belt sequence to a spectacular climax that even Lucy couldn’t replicate.
But the most important reason for the film’s ongoing relevance is its contemporary themes and forward-looking perspective. The famous symbolic opening shot, with footage of wave after wave of sheep crowding through a sheepfold passageway suddenly dissolving into footage of workers bustling out of a subway station, has lost nothing of its impact. Indeed, contemporary viewers will easily make the connection between Chaplin’s image and the world of enclosures and passageways so familiar to corporate America’s cubicle dwellers — and to fans of Scott Adams’s Dilbert comic strip (who of course tend to be the same people).
Another Dilbert-like early scene shows the Tramp trying to take a break during work hours in the washroom — only to have a big-screen image of the boss’s head suddenly appear on the washroom wall and order him to quit stalling and get back to work. Modern audiences watching this scene may reflect ruefully on the everyday reality of electronic surveillance in the workplace — perhaps not even noticing that the sequence was shot decades before viable television, to say nothing of big-screen two-way communication. (In a nice effect, as the Tramp hustles out of the washroom, the boss’s eyes seem to follow him.)
As all these examples suggest, Modern Times looks toward the future, but not with enthusiasm. Often described as a satire of the machine age, Modern Times has in fact a broader theme: the dehumanizing effects of many aspects of modernity, including industrialization, bureaucracy, urbanization, and law enforcement.
Obviously Chaplin wasn’t against progress or technology; after all, cinema itself, even silent cinema, is a quintessentially modern medium. And it goes without saying that the modern era has brought many extraordinary advances in such areas as medicine, food production, and so on. It’s easy to imagine someone making a companion film called Ancient Times highlighting the difficulties of life in premodern conditions. Still, even if we decide in the end that, all things considered, we prefer today’s quality of life to that of earlier periods, that shouldn’t prevent us from recognizing the social ills and failings of our own day.
For example, a recurring theme in Modern Times is the phenomenon of unemployment. Now, obviously there’s nothing new about widespread poverty and want, but unemployment as we know it today is a comparatively recent development — a byproduct of the modern workforce economy that requires everyone to "get a job." (In premodern societies, generally speaking, the challenge for able-bodied people was often less "finding work" than being able to survive on the work one did.)
At the same time, Chaplin’s critique of "modern" times sometimes reminds us of the progress made in this country even since his day. We still have unemployment, of course, but at comparatively low levels — and with a far more robust system of social "safety nets" (unemployment benefits, welfare and social services, shelters and food pantries, etc.) than existed in Chaplin’s day. Few Americans today are in a position of having to steal in order to eat, like Chaplin’s heroine (vivacious Paulette Goddard, Chaplin’s real-life wife at the time), said to be a "gamin" or "child of the waterfront" who "refuses to go hungry." Or like the burglars the Tramp encounters while working as a security guard, one of whom happens to know the Tramp and says plaintively, "We ain’t burglars — we’re hungry."This claim of the Tramp’s acquaintance (“We ain’t burglars — we’re hungry”) has some justification in traditional Christian moral teaching, which defines theft as “usurping another’s property against the reasonable will of the owner,” with the proviso that “one in danger of death from want of food, or suffering any form of extreme necessity, may lawfully take from another as much as is required to meet his present distress even though the possessor’s opposition be entirely clear.”
The reason has to do with the hierarchy within natural law. Theft is a violation of the principle of private property, but this principle is itself subordinate to a higher law: the universal destination of created goods, which affirms that God created the world’s goods for the good of all.
As a matter of practical necessity, the universal destination of created goods is served by the principle of private property, which encourages everyone to work for his own benefit, thereby helping to ensure that the world’s goods will be properly developed and enjoyed by all. However, in cases in which circumstances prevent particular individuals from acquiring what they need in order to survive, the principle of private property can hinder rather than serve the universal destination of created goods.
Chaplin’s film toys with Communism as an alternative to the injustice of unemployment in a society without safety nets. In those pre-Cold War days Communist sympathies were more socially acceptable; and after all America did need to need to develop social structures that would make unemployment more survivable and less dehumanizing. The Church’s social teaching has always upheld the necessity of social justice; a totally free market economy in which losers are ruthlessly sacrificed while winners bear no responsibility to the less fortunate is incompatible with Christian morality.
Despite its social consciousness, Modern Times does not morph into a tract or political drama, but remains very much a slapstick tragicomedy in the Little Tramp tradition. Chaplin touches upon unemployment and other social issues, but he does so obliquely, with a light touch, in the context of his character’s comic misadventures.
Witness the subtlety and comic timing of the scene in which the Tramp is arrested for communist agitation. Just released from a psychiatric ward, the Tramp happens to see a flatbed truck with a long load, trailing an obligatory red warning flag at the end. When the flag falls off the back of the load, the Tramp helpfully scoops it up, waving it to try to get the driver’s attention — not realizing that a throng of unemployed workers from his old job has come up behind him, demonstrating in the streets. To the police, of course, the Tramp waving his red flag at the head of the crowd looks like the leader of these agitators; and he is quickly bundled off to jail.
Note how gracefully Chaplin weaves together the demands of (a) his medium (although the film is black and white, we know the flag is red because it comes from the back of the long load on the flatbed), (b) his comedy-of-errors genre (an innocent attempt to help is mistaken for political agitation — just the kind of thing that would happen to the Tramp), (c) the continuity of his story (the demonstration doesn’t simply appear from nowhere for the sake of the gag, but flows naturally and logically from past events), and (d) the social concerns underlying the film (the workers’ plight mirrors real problems — as does that of the Tramp, neither the first nor the last to be wrongly persecuted for the belief that he is a Communist).
The same artistry is evident throughout Modern Times. Chaplin gives us one classic scene after another: the feeding-machine demonstration, the Tramp’s short-lived career as a shipyard worker, lunchtime at the factory with the Tramp’s supervisor caught in a giant machine, and of course the climactic song-and-dance number, in which the Tramp’s actual voice is finally heard, yet the film’s rule against vocalized words remains intact.
This is as it must be: The Tramp, more than the characters of Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd, is a quintessentially silent character; almost a mime. Like a mime, he interacts with his world but never really enters into it or belongs to it. He’s an eternal outsider, forever looking hopefully for his place in the world but never truly finding it; he is always moving on, walking away, his back to the camera and his face to the horizon. Modern Times ends on a note that is both true to this heritage and also softens it. It’s a worthy last hurrah for an immortal character, for a great body of work, and for a whole era of cinema.
New from the Criterion Collection, Charlie Chaplin’s comedy classic The Gold Rush is now available on Blu-ray and DVD in a single edition that includes both the original 1925 silent film and Chaplin’s 1942 reworking of the film in a quasi-sound edition, with humorous, documentary-like narration replacing the intertitles.
City Lights is the quintessential Chaplin film — both the most perfectly crafted and satisfying of all his films, and also the most representative of all the different textures and tones for which Chaplin is remembered, from slapstick and pantomime to pathos and sentiment, farce and irreverence to melodrama and social commentary.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.