June 06, 2007

Modern Times (1936)

The arrival of sound to films in 1927 (in the movie "The Jazz Singer") was definitely a major turning point in history of cinema, and one that would have enormous consequences in the motion picture industry of those years. Only 2 years after "The Jazz Singer" was released, sound films ("talkies") became the dominant format in cinema, and slowly the silent era reached its end and with it the careers of those who couldn't make the transition. Of course, sound faced harsh opposition from many prominent artists of silent movies like directors Sergei Eisenstein and Charlie Chaplin, who felt that sound diminished the art of cinema instead of elevating it. Soon, both directors would find themselves forced to get with the times and make the transition, but Chaplin wouldn't quit without a last laugh. 1936's silent movie "Modern Times" would be Chaplin's sweet farewell to his beloved silent era, and with it, to his most famous character: the Tramp.

"Modern Times" is the story of a factory worker (Chaplin as the Tramp), who works at an assembly line in an enormous industrial facility. The constant overworking begins to take its toll in him and suffers a mental breakdown that sends him to the hospital. After his recovery, he discovers that he is no longer an employee, as the workers are on a strike, and are now marching towards the factory. By a weird series of circumstances, the Tramp is arrested after being confused with a Communist leader, and sent to jail where he spends literally the best time of his life. After being released for good behavior, he finds himself again jobless and on a very difficult condition, so he plans to return to jail as soon as possible; however, his plans will change after he meets an orphan girl gamine (Paulette Goddard), who is living in a harshest condition than his.

As usual, "Modern Times" was not only a movie directed by Chaplin, but also written and produced by himself; and once again he returns to his familiar mix of drama and comedy that he had been perfect over the years with monumental classics like "The Gold Rush" and "City Lights". This time however, Chaplin takes a more politically charged approach and fills his comedy with his ideas about the harsh life of factory workers, dehumanization, and the Great Depression. While this often unsubtle use of comedy as an outlet for his ideologies could had been damaging for the story in other writer's hands, Chaplin creates a joyfully optimist and very humanist plot that helps to make easier to enjoy and understand the overtly political tone of the film. The story is written in an episodic form, but it flows with nicely thanks to its nonstop series of excellent gags that keep the fun coming.

Visually, the movie is probably Chaplin's greatest artistic achievement, as he extends the themes of his screenplay to the overall look of the film. With a clever use of montage (obviously inspired by Soviet filmmakers) and several nods to German expressionism, Chaplin brings to life his vision of society slowly transforming into a industrialized monster where there is hardly any place for love and happiness. The excellent art direction by Charles D. Hall and J. Russell Spencer is an essential piece for this and it's definitely a highlight of the film, as it truly makes "Modern Times" feel "modern". While for the most part Chaplin manages to keep a good balance between the drama and the comedy of the film, he can't help but fall on excessive sentimentalism, making the film feel a bit too preachy at times.

The main cast, as in every Chaplin movie, is remarkable in their performances, and each one of them truly add a lot of their personalities to their roles. As his most famous character, the Tramp, Chaplin here is pure gold and as always, he fills the screen with his charming presence and enormous comedic talent. His body control shines in several scenes of slapstick comedy that are nowadays classics, and he also shows off his total domain of pantomime as he easily transmits the audience that joyful optimism that has become the Tramp's trademark. As the Tramp's counterpart, Paulette Goddard is simply beautiful, displaying a natural charm and freshness that makes her character the Tramp's best sidekick since Jackie Coogan in "The Kid".

While this movie was supposed to be Chaplin's first "talkie", he quickly dismissed the idea as he considered that his Tramp character worked better without speaking; so with this in mind the legendary comedian decided to transform "Modern Times" into a hybrid: a "talkie" in the silent era style, where every sound in the film is audible except the human voice. In fact, the only spoken voices that become audible are the ones that come out of machines (radio for example), keeping in touch with the script's themes of humanity trapped by the modern industrial nightmare. This could also be seen as Chaplin making fun of "talkies", as while technically he shot a movie with sound, he faithfully followed classic conventions of the silent era like title cards and specially, the pantomime style of acting.

"Modern Times" is without a doubt one of Chaplin's best films, and one of the most interesting comedies of all time. While it kind of lacks that naiveté that made "The Gold Rush" such an amazing experience, it offers a new and more sophisticated style of comedy. As the last movie of the silent era and the Tramp's final on-screen apparition, "Modern Times" is a timeless classic that even today helps us to remind that despite the advent of the modernization, there's still place for happiness, as in the Tramp's words, "Buck up - never say die, We'll get along."


Buy "Modern Times" (1936)

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