Modern Times (1936)

Written & Directed by Charles Chaplin

To this point I am much further into discovering the genius of Charles Chaplin than I am Buster Keaton, and I do connect them in my mind for delivering a brilliant period of film which included the great slapstick humor in the silent era mixed with wonderful romance and sentimentalism. The last time I came upon a Chaplin work (The Gold Rush), however, I was left with only a lukewarm feeling. The man is clearly talented and out of the four films I have seen from him, two are solidly in my Top 100. And to add to that it was with this film that I first noticed his greatness as a composer as well as a filmmaker. He composed the music for his films as well which is further reason to praise him as a filmmaker, and another reason for me to be interested in checking out the Richard Attenborough bio-pic of Chaplin starring Robert Downey Jr. He is just a fascinating figure.

On this outing Chaplin dons the cap of a factory worker in what is supposedly the future of industry. There is video messaging within the factory and the large machinery certainly suggests a world of grandeur. But Chaplin is just a lowly worker, assigned with tightening bolts at a maddening pace. But he soon meets a young homeless girl (Paulette Goddard), who has been living down by the docks and stealing to support her father and siblings. Their loves grows and connects the two through a series of misadventures, leading them to a broken down house on the outskirts of town. They struggle to live within the societal norms, but they have each other.

I must admit that like before with The Gold Rush, I was left a little lukewarm with the proceedings. Chaplin is undeniably a great entertainer, and as such his charm and physical humor is enough to make this film worthwhile. There are a number of great sequences throughout the film, including the iconic one including the large gears in the factory. However, I felt the film failed where Chaplin’s other films have generally worked so very well, with the romance. Chaplin is fine in the film, in fact he is up to his old self again, which is to say he is very easy to watch. Paulette Goddard is very much the same, and in fact quite pretty (those eyes!) to have been playing a homeless young girl. But I never bought the pair.

Because the romance was such an important part of the film, it was a difficult obstacle to overcome. But despite that, the final shot is just as incredible. I love what Chaplin is doing here, and it is very noble, as is much of his filmography, but the idea of a film that condemns the mechanized nature of human labor within the newly mechanized world never really paid off for me like other Chaplin antics. The lunch machine scene for instance, while funny perhaps to watch, didn’t make a whole lot of sense and went on for much longer than needed. It was really just a collection of little things like that which bugged me, albeit just a little bit, and made the film less enjoyable for me.

The film did not live up to the reputation which it receives, at least not for me, but I can still say that I love Charlie Chaplin. It is certainly not a film I would call bad, in fact I enjoyed myself and would call it quite good. No, I will certainly still seek out more from this silent era master, even as he transformed his style to meet the demands of sound. This film features a little bit of both worlds and one of my favorites of all time, The Great Dictator, shows his ability with sound. But from here I will still be searching for the brilliance of the silent film City Lights to be matched.

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