Twitter Plot Summary: Charlie Chaplin takes on industry and the modern world in a biting 1930s social satire.
Five Point Summary:
1. A not so subtle indication that we’re all sheep…
2. He’s off his face on “nose powder”.
3. Gastritis gag. Very good.
4. Rollerskating near the edge…
5. A singing finale? Oh go on then.
Chaplin was incredibly resistant to the idea of talkies, to the point whereby he seemed to go into a bit of a strop about them in the early 1930s and didn’t make a film for several years. Whilst not entirely a silent movie, Modern Times bridges the gap between the two generations of cinema and features excellent performances from both Chaplin, naturally, and his co-star Paulette Goddard.
What’s most intriguing about the film almost 80 years later is the heavy satirical element that runs through it. This is of course several years after the Wall Street Crash of 1929, where austerity was more prevalent than it is today. Modern Times sees Chaplin’s Factory Worker – aka The Little Tramp, because that’s who it is, despite not being named as such – working in a factory tightening bolts on a production line. When he suffers a nervous breakdown and subsequently recovers, he finds himself unemployed and mistaken for a communist. So he ends up in prison, and out again. And in again. And out again. And so on, because prison is a guaranteed bed as opposed to being out there on the streets with nowhere to go. In the course of his arrests, he meets up with a gamine (aka a young, playful and mischievous girl) and they seek a home and employment together. From here they end up staying in a department store and ultimately find themselves serving and performing in a restaurant. The constant need to seek shelter, paid employment and the need to put food on the table was incredibly relevant for the time, and to a lesser extent the problems of the modern world and the over reliance on technology and modern gadgets – oh if only Chaplin could see us now!
The physical humour is also spot on, with the rollerskating sequence in the department store and the opening sequence on the production line being of particular note. Chaplin remains as endearing as ever, a loveable tyke, for want of a better term, who is eternally optimistic despite the world seemingly being against him. He and the gamine are kindred spirits in this respect, and it’s fun to see how their relationship develops following their chance meeting in the back of the police van.
Chaplin may have been against “talkies”, but Modern Times sits nicely at the halfway point between the two formats, and whilst this is a novelty in itself, it also just so happens to be a very good film at the same time. Okay, so the overall narrative feels more like a series of sketches rather than a cohesive story, and that would be entirely true, but it’s a combination of those various short films within the film that make it what it is. The fact there is hardly a duff moment in any of them is a testament to the quality of writing and the quality of the performances. It’s also a solid indication as to why Chaplin’s work is as revered as it is.