[Film Review] Modern Times (1936)

Modern Times poster

Title: Modern Times
Year: 1936
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Director/Writer: Charlie Chaplin
Music: Charlie Chaplin
Ira H. Morgan
Roland Totheroh
Charlie Chaplin
Paulette Goddard
Tiny Sandford
Chester Conklin
Richard Alexander
Henry Bergman
Stanley Blystone
Al Ernest Garcia
Mira McKinney
Lloyd Ingraham
Sammy Stein
Gloria DeHaven
Rating: 8.0/10

Modern Times 1936

Mr. Chaplin’s pièce-de-résistence, MODERN TIMES is his last silent feature, but rendered with an innovative adulteration of sound voices solely from mechanical devices, barring Chaplin’s near-end humorous performance of THE NONSENSE SONG, for the very first time, audience hears the maestro’s real voice from the screen in a gibberish ditty, one could only imagine the hype and excitement at then.

MODERN TIMES introduces Chaplin’s iconic screen alter-ego aka. little tramp as an assembly-line worker in the Depression era, the factory’s pristine props hark back to Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS (1927), but less futuristic, more realistic in its scale of grasping capitalism under the efficiency-prioritizing doctrine whereas a proletariat like the tramp, has no means to secure an auspicious future and is inescapably subjected to the exploitation by the industrialized society, picked as a guinea pig for a novel lunch-feeding contrivance, constantly under the duress of the ever-accelerating assembly-line, after being engorged by it (a brilliant surreal light-touch), he is driven mad and wreaks havoc on the machine and is sent to hospital, subsequently, being mistaken as a Communist and thrown into the prison, where he accidentally becomes a hero by thwarting a jail-break attempt, but ironically because he is high on cocaine, which he mistakes for salt in his lunch. Yet, whenever he is given a new lease on life, reality will cunningly squash his effort although in some cases, he has only himself to blame for. There is a skewering political spin aiming at the modernized assembly line, the humongous machines, the callous industrialists and the oppressive authority, being buried underneath the surface of bang-up farces, which has been scarcely actualized in Chaplin’s works before.

The plot mainly consists of a string of superlative skits de rigueur, which is completely in Chaplin’s elements, the tramp’s free-flowing pantomime, delightful slapstick and ingeniously devised set pieces (although the stomach-churning duet crops up as a head-scratcher) are typically endearing to watch, what is more astonishing is how he can make tough stunts look incredibly effortless, in particular with sleight of hand, an arresting trompe l’oeil is accomplished when he roller-skates blindfold against a matted painting which puts viewers at the edge of their seats for his safety. The story also presents a fiery heroine, the gamin (Goddard), a recently orphaned girl who is anything but a damsel-in-distress, Goddard, although is not endowed with Chaplin’s bent of physical comedy, is impeccably elemental in foregrounding the gamin’s gallantry and loveliness, takes on a weighty counterpart against the tramp’s unostentatious playfulness, together, they help each other out in the difficult times, share bitter-sweet moments. A self-encouraging coda might betray Chaplin’s precaution that comedy has its built-in calling to look on the brighter side, by and large, MODERN TIME is a reverberating showcase of Chaplin’s competence which further transcends its time and context.


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