For me, what first popped out about Modern Times was it’s release date: 1936. That’s kind of mystifying. Countless sound masterpieces that established the new cinematic language had already come and gone. M, It Happened One Night, Top Hat… the list goes on. Monster productions like Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind were just a few years away. So, in many ways, Modern Times is the last great gasp of silent film making from its lone remaining megastar. It’s also very much of a particular time and place: the Great Depression, and all the economic tensions that go along with it.
In Modern Times, Chaplin posits his famous Tramp character as an unwitting symbol of industrial discontent. He accidentally leads workers of a factory on a strike, and becomes the leader of a socialist movement, despite the fact he is obviously horrible at whatever job he’s handed. Chaplin’s sympathy is obviously with the working class of America, so the metaphor would perhaps be better served if his Tramp was actually worthy of work, but the comedy certainly wouldn’t be. Comic heroes who win the world’s favor don’t often do it by competence or superiority. Everyone loves the underdog.
History can’t help but lend a little irony to Chaplin making his fortune and empire by milking his adorable Tramp character for so long. Regardless of their origins, when a wealthy, successful captain of industry like Chaplin claims to speak for the unwashed masses, it usually fosters resentment and contempt. But somehow, since Chaplin is himself a dinosaur on the very precipice of becoming obsolete, the Tramp makes the perfect hero for a proletariat call to arms. Never mind Chaplin’s immense fortune and world wide acclaim. He perfectly captures the tension between the workers he’s presenting and the industrial revolution that threatens to rob them of their livelihoods, just as the technological advent of sound on film felled so many silent film stars. Modern Times works as metaphor because even as it broaches social tensions, it’s always grounded in an intensely personal place.
Modern Times is not without its fat. There are numerous inessential yet pleasant diversions with a love interest taking the form of a young street urchin (Chaplin’s then wife Paulette Godard). It’s not the place of comedy to be lean and mean, but there’s certainly a loss of forward momentum in the Tramp’s fantasies of domesticity. That sort of sentimentality is one of the primary traits that separates Chaplin and the great stone faced Buster Keaton. Obviously, Keaton tried to tug at the heart strings too. But I think Chaplin has a deeper longing to be loved than Keaton. He mugs for the camera, he makes googly eyes, he frames himself tightly in shots and plays cute. It’s no surprise that Chaplin remains an icon and star in ways that Keaton never achieved despite being a similarly gifted performer and (in the views of many) a more accomplished, imaginative film maker. Chaplin courted stardom. He branded.
There’s a great scene where the Tramp is forced to enter into the world of sound. Working at a musical theatre/restaurant, the Tramp is forced to perform a little song and dance routine, to which he’s lost the lyrics. So, the Tramp improvises a quick routine that involves pantomime and some nonsensical babbling. It doesn’t matter what the Tramp says, or who can understand him, because he’s delightful and captivating regardless. It’s a great thumbing of the nose to the very notion that technological advancements would render the old ways archaic. Old and new could exists side by side, and need not compete.