Welcome to Modern Times week, a celebration of my favouritest Chaplin film on its 80th anniversary. Part I is a general overview of the film itself, Part II looks behind the scenes, and Part III explores what the film means to me.
Released 5 February 1936, Modern Times was Chaplin’s last stand against talking pictures. The film is a beautiful, bittersweet farewell not only to the silent era, but also to the Little Tramp. It was originally conceived of as a talkie back in 1934, but Chaplin knew in his heart it would be a fatal mistake to give a voice to the Tramp.
There actually is a fair bit of sound, but it all comes from machines. Except for the nonsense song near the end, none of this speech comes directly from an actual living, breathing human. I can’t describe how it feels in the lead-up to “Smile,” knowing the Tramp is about to speak for the first and only time. A nonsense song in a made-up language is the only kind of speech which works.
The Little Tramp is an assembly-line worker at the Electro-Steel Corporation, with a boss who puts profits over people. The boss keeps track of his employees via closed-circuit television surveillance, and barks orders at them when he appears onscreen. This is one of the film’s uses of speech. He even appears in the bathroom, as he snaps at the Tramp to get back to work when he’s about to start smoking.
Presently, several men come in to audition a feeding machine meant to eliminate the lunch hour by automatically feeding workers. The explanation of the machine is provided via a record. Of course, the guinea pig ends up being the Tramp. At first, the demonstration goes well, but then it starts going hilariously haywire.
The boss decides the machine isn’t practical and has no use, and the Tramp goes back to the assembly line. As a result of being forced to work so frenetically, and because he’s treated like a mere cog in a machine instead of a human being, the Tramp cracks up and goes totally nuts. Finally, he’s caught and hauled off to hospital to recover.
After his release, he finds himself out of a job and gets in trouble all over again when he picks up a red flag that fell off of a truck. He helpfully runs after the truck to try to give back the flag, and a lot of protesters rally behind him, believing he’s one of them. The cops presently arrive to break it up and haul the protesters off to jail. It’s so surreal to watch these kinds of scenes from the era before Miranda Rights.
One of the jail scenes was extremely daring under the Hays Code (very strict movie production rules forbidding things like illegal drugs, implied sex, childbirth, cursing, interracial relationships, and violence). While the Tramp is in the dining hall, investigators arrive in search of a suspected cocaine smuggler. The drug fiend quickly pours his cocaine into a salt shaker, and the hapless Tramp puts it on his food.
The cocaine causes him to crack up yet again, and he wanders into the prison yard instead of marching back to his cell. During this brief moment of liberty, he foils an attempted prison break and is hailed as a hero. In reward, he earns an early release, but the Tramp has grown to like life in prison. He doesn’t want to leave and go back to his precarious existence.
Once out of jail, the Tramp crosses paths with the Gamin (Paulette Goddard, his real-life wife of the time). The viewer has already been introduced to her, and seen her losing her father and escaping from the juvenile officers who took her two little sisters away. (Though she’s consistently credited as the Gamin, the proper feminine form is actually Gamine.) The Tramp tries to take the fall after she steals a loaf of bread, but the ruse isn’t successful.
The Tramp begins a pattern of being in and out of jail, in and out of work. Jail offers a more secure existence than work during the Great Depression, when jobs were hard to come by and strikes weren’t uncommon. There are lots of awesome slapstick scenes during the Tramp’s numerous jobs, including one with the awesome Chester Conklin.
The Tramp and the Gamin ultimately end up working in a café, and seem to be doing well. However, the authorities come by to arrest the Gamin for her earlier escape, and the couple make a run for it again. I think the ending of this film chokes me up even more than the ending of City Lights. It’s a farewell to the Little Tramp, watching him walking off into the sunset and knowing he’s finally got a companion by his side to face the uncertain future.
I strongly believe in Carl Jung’s theory of race memories, and I feel the Tramp has become a race memory. This beautiful, universal character now exists in each of us, for all time.