Modern Times

Released:  1936

Cast:  Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman, Tiny Sandford, Chester Conklin

SUMMARY:  An unnamed man (Charlie Chaplin) makes a living working on an assembly line in a factory, where he repeatedly turns nuts with both hands.  This job, while seemingly simple, can become complicated if one has to sneeze or talk to somebody else, as the assembly line keeps going without the nuts being turned.  The man experiences several of these events, much to the annoyance of the men behind him on the assembly line.  During lunch, he is selected as the test case for a new automated feeding machine being pitched to his boss, which ends with him covered in food.  Finally the stress of his job becomes too much for him and he has a nervous breakdown, which leads to him romping and dancing through the factory, throwing levers and switches willy-nilly.  He is sent to a hospital to recover, which he does.  However, after leaving the hospital he needs a job, but is mistaken for a protestor in a Communist demonstration, and thrown in jail.  One day soon after, the guards raid the jail for cocaine, which the prisoner sitting next to the man is smuggling.  The smuggler puts the cocaine in the salt shaker, which the man accidentally uses mass quantities of to improve his lunch.  He immediately gets very high, and without realizing it avoids going back to his cell.  He then happens on a breakout attempt by a few prisoners, which he foils in front of the guards.  The man is subsequently regarded as a hero, and spends the rest of his sentence in relative luxury.  His surroundings are so nice that he doesn’t want to leave the jail when his term is done.    Armed with a letter from the Sheriff that recommends him for any job, the man gets work at a shipyard, but soon releases an unfinished ship into the ocean, and is fired.  As he leaves he sees a young woman, Ellen (Paulette Goddard), running from the police after stealing a loaf of bread.

Now desperate to be put back in jail, the man claims to have stolen the bread himself, and is arrested.  Unfortunately, a witness identifies the real culprit, and the man is released.  He then intentionally gets arrested at a cafeteria, but when the paddy wagon turns over, both he and Ellen escape.  The man was immediately taken by Ellen, and she is enamored of his behavior towards her.  They dream of a better life together, but the man must first get a job.  He is hired as the night watchman at a department store, and after secretly letting Ellen in, the two enjoy the niceties on display (including the food).  That evening, the man catches three burglars, but one of them is an old friend; the four end up drinking together and the man is found the next morning, passed out.  Once again, he is arrested.  This time he only serves ten days, and Ellen is waiting for him when he gets out.  She takes him to a house she has found, which is little more than a shack, but she is proud of it.  The next day the man gets a job as a mechanic’s assistant at a factory, and nearly gets his boss eaten by the machinery before learning that the factory workers are going on strike; as he leaves he accidentally throws a brick at a policeman, and is jailed for two weeks.  When he gets out this time, he learns that Ellen has gotten a job dancing and waitressing in a café, and has gotten him a job as well.  Unfortunately, the job requires him to sing, and the man is completely unable to remember his lyrics.  After Ellen’s attempt to write them on his cuff fails, the man improvises and sings  made-up song, which is a huge hit with the crowd.  Unfortunately, the police then show up looking for Ellen (for earlier crimes), and the two are forced to flee.  This time they escape, and walk out of town together, hand in hand.

MY TAKE:  This is usually regarded as one of, if not the best, of Charlie Chaplin’s movies, and I would agree with that assessment.  I found myself actually laughing out loud on multiple occasions, and it’s pretty much a silent movie — you hear the voice of the factory boss and the song the man sings in the café, but that’s it.  This fact actually makes it sort of a double-odd movie:  it’s a silent movie that was made in 1936, well after everybody else converted to talkies, and yet you hear Charlie Chaplin’s voice for the first time on film.  I like the Tramp character, because while he gets into a lot of unfortunate situations, it’s not because he’s an imbecile.  Usually, it’s because of an accident, and frequently it’s because he’s attempting to help somebody else, but the attempt somehow backfires.  The amazing thing to me is that Charlie Chaplin not only wrote, directed and starred in this movie, he also composed the musical score for it.  I’m not a big Chaplin fan due to his personal reputation, but I will admit that he’s pretty much a genius.  Who else could, or would dare to, have made a silent movie in 1936?  They were making color films by then (only three years later, Gone With the Wind would become the first color film to win Best Picture), for crying out loud.  The funny thing is, you don’t really notice the lack of talking once you get into it, because you get so caught up in what’s going on.  My favorite moment:  either when he’s ballet dancing through the factory, chasing women around with his tools (thinking the buttons on their dresses are nuts he needs to turn), or higher than a kite on cocaine and spinning in circles.  It’s hard to decide.

RATING:  Brilliant.

 

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