Sunday, 20 April 2014

Modern Times (1936)

Country: USA
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Screenplay: Charlie Chaplin
Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman
Length: 87 minutes 

A blue collar worker (a.k.a. the Tramp) struggles to make ends meet for him and his sweetheart in an increasingly mechanized and dehumanized world. 

His first (sort-of) talkie and explicitly political film, Modern Times was inspired by Chaplin’s distressed observations of Europe during the Great Depression while promoting City Lights (1931), and by a conversation with Gandhi lamenting the profit-driven industrialization of society. Arguably his most popular film, Modern Times inspired cultural phenomena like Jean-Paul Sartre’s journal, Les Temps Modernes and the famous “chocolate assembly line” episode of I Love Lucy.

If Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and Chaplin’s City Lights (1931) got it on and had a baby, they would have to name it Modern Times. I'm no enemy of free enterprise (even though I'm about to sound like one), but if anything could turn me into a flag-waving communist, it's this oldie but goodie. Chaplin’s indictment of industrialization, crony capitalism, and the exploitation of workers (symbolized not-so-subtly by a herd of sheep, one notable black one among them), Modern Times must have profoundly resonated with a Depression-era population desperate for work and often left to feel like mere cogs in the Great Industrial Machine - in the Tramp's case, literally.

As in Metropolis, business magnates look for cheaper and better ways to squeeze the most out of their workers. We also see a female freedom fighter working tirelessly to defend the socially-disadvantaged masses while struggling to put bread on her own table. This is a world in which there is no middle class, just a handful of Richie Riches and everyone else. (Sound familiar?) To be an "employee" is to barely subsist, which means you might just have to turn to a life of crime if you want to feed your family. Who cares if you go to jail, Chaplin concludes, at least that way you eat. The poor guy doesn’t want much, just a job that pays a decent wage and a home he won’t lose to the bank. Filthy socialist!

But there’s something else we should notice here. The fact that a man as well-off as Chaplin could tell a probing story about working class problems suggests that there was, once upon a time, an era when the wealthy registered enough concern about the rich-poor divide to talk honestly about it. A stark reminder that our experiment with democracy and social welfare over the past couple of centuries has been short-lived and that the rich and powerful will always find a way to build million-dollar condos atop the carcasses of the poor bastards who helped get them there.

Don't get me wrong, I love money. I just hope my humanity doesn't drown if I find myself swimming in it.

And he does it again! Chaplin had an undeniable knack for combining laughs, a well-constructed plot, and a great big heart in all of his films. Case in point: a midpoint scene in which a former co-worker robs the department store the Tramp is now guarding, claiming not to be a criminal and just needing to feed his family. It's a moment that has you chuckling one minute and fighting tears, the next. Classic Chappy!

The opening assembly line scene isn't just a classic, it's farkin' hilarious, as funny today as it was 80 years ago, showing that when it came to comedy, Chaplin just got it. I also love that he rather consistently steers away from reducing his female characters to props, choosing instead to give them strong, decisive and, dare I say, equal importance in his stories.

It was heartbreaking to learn of the opposition Chaplin faced during the second half of his career thanks to Senator Joseph McCarthy and all of his friends. But maybe the persecution he endured was part of what made him such a brilliant storyteller, who knows? Either way his films still resonate as some of the most creative, honest and authentically human of the twentieth century. Discovering great movies like Modern Times was exactly why we started this blog. Thank you, Charlie!

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