Modern Times at 80, Part II (Behind the scenes)

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Originally conceived of as a talkie, Modern Times instead ended up being Chaplin’s last stand against sound. It really all came down to knowing his character better than anyone else. Just because someone else thinks such-and-such would be an awesome idea for a book, film, painting, or song doesn’t mean it’s what’s truly right for the creator’s artistic vision. Chaplin stuck to his guns, and gave the Little Tramp a beautiful swan song.

Modern Times was filmed from 11 October 1934–30 August 1935, and was largely shot at 18 frames per second, the standard silent speed. Normal sound speed is 24 frames per second. Thus, the slapstick scenes appeared even more frenetic when projected in theatres at sound speed. Today, this has been corrected on the several official DVDs.

Most people who aren’t really into film don’t understand these differences in filming and projection speeds, and how the wrong speed can have a negative impact on an otherwise great film. One of the reasons for certain people’s stigma against silent cinema is the memory of watching a film projected too fast, and being left with the impression of ridiculousness.

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The film was Chaplin’s first overtly political one, and the political and social commentary which are part and parcel of the story are a huge reason why it means so much to me. Chaplin got the idea for the film during his 18-month world tour in 1931–32, when he saw firsthand the economic devastation and rise of ultra-nationalism in Europe. The growing tide of automation concerned him, particularly since it seemed to be replacing human workers. He proceeded to formulate his own ideas about how to potentially solve such problems, based on some of the books he’d been reading.

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Several supporting roles were played by actors Chaplin had a long working relationship with. They include Chester Conklin (the walrus-moustached Mechanic stuck in the gears above), Henry Bergman (the Café Proprietor), and Tiny Sandford (Big Bill). These comic veterans were at home in the world of silent cinema.

For the second time, Chaplin composed the musical score, and also created the sound effects. By this point, he seemed to realise sound cinema was here to stay, but he knew it couldn’t work for his character and the type of story he wanted to tell. All the human speech is filtered through machines (a record, a radio, a television screen), except for the nonsense song “Smile” near the end.

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Contemporary reviewers loved the film and praised it highly, though it didn’t do so awesomely at the U.S. box office due to being mostly silent and for having such overt political overtones. However, it did turn a profit thanks to box office returns in other countries. This feels like more of an episodic gag comedy than a plot-driven story, but that’s one of the reasons I love it so much. Episodic stories are highly underrated these days, and can be done well so long as they’re hung on some kind of story arc and feature great characters we care about.

The German film company Tobis Film sued Chaplin for alleged plagiarism of the 1931 À Nous la Liberté (Liberty for Us), which was directed by René Clair. The lawsuit wasn’t successful, and Monsieur Clair (a huge fan) was flattered Chaplin would imitate so much of his film. The lawsuit was pretty embarrassing for him, and he was never part of the case. In 1947, Tobis Film sued again, in what was believed to be an act of revenge for Chaplin’s anti-Nazi views in The Great Dictator. This time, they settled out of court.

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The conveyer belt scenes inspired the Donald Duck cartoon Der Fuehrer’s Face (1943) and the “Job Switching” episode of I Love Lucy. One of the scenes in the Tramp and the Gamin’s shack home, where the Tramp trips over a stool, also inspired the bit in the opening credits of The Dick Van Dyke Show.

Today, the film rightly holds a place as one of Chaplin’s all-time greatest.

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3 thoughts on “Modern Times at 80, Part II (Behind the scenes)

  1. Seeing a silent film at the proper speed was a revelation to me. I grew up watching old silent films in that speeded up manner and while I enjoyed them, there was that visual absurdity to them. Thank goodness someone finally got the sense (or the technology) to start showing the films as they were intended to be seen.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out

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    • The official DVDs should all have them at the correct speed these days, as well as the prints broadcast by TCM and at most film festivals and indie theatres. From what I’ve read, it seems like improper projection speeds were more common a generation or so ago.

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