Friday, July 03, 2009
Movie Time: Rewind: Modern Times
So it seems I didn't get this posted at the end of the month like I should have so I will attempt to double your pleasure this month with two columns of the Rewind, where we turn the clock back and check out some of the great movies made before 1976, the year of my birth. For this column, I thought we should finish of the great trifecta of silent stars and place the spotlight on Charlie Chaplin. I have already talked about Charlie's main contemporaries in silent films, the very physical comedians Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Chaplin though, was the supreme film star of the 1920's and was very successful after the invention of talking pictures as well.
While Buster fell onto hard times with a bad contract at MGM and limited success with talkies, Harold Lloyd flourished in the first few years after the silents ended. Chaplin though was resistant to talkies. He feared that the worldwide appeal of his "Tramp" persona, which he had established throughout the past 15 years, would be diminished. With his non-English speaking fans being unable to relate to the romanticism of the character. Chaplin made his first post talkie in 1931, the much beloved and lauded, City Lights in 1931, fully two years after talkies had become the norm. For his next film, and the choice of this column, it would take Chaplin nearly years to finish production on, 1936's Modern Times.
Modern Times takes Chaplin's much beloved "tramp" persona, a character he portrayed in many films, into the modern age as it were. At first , you must know a little about the persona that Chaplin had established with his character over the past 20 years. The Tramp was always a good natured bumbling little fellow who always endeavored to act the gentlemen, despite his station in life. Wearing out sized, secondhand baggy pants, a to tight coat, floppy shoes and a derby hat, Chaplin played the happy go lucky vagrant in such a way that you always personified yourself with his under dog character, especially when he had to rely on his cunning to escape from the antics he found himself in.
In Modern Times, considered by most the last silent film, Chaplin has taken the Tramp to work in a factory at an assembly line.There he tightens nuts onto machinery at an ever increasing pace, until he suffers a nervous breakdown. His nerves are frayed even more when he is volunteered to try out an experimental feeding machine designed to increase productivity, but essentially just makes the situation worse. Sent to recover in a hospital, he leaves only to discover he has lost his job, and in a mix up, is accidentally arrested for being on a Communist rally. While in jail, another mix up leads the Tramp to stop a jailbreak, after mistakenly taking some drugs inside a salt shaker. In his delirious state, he stops 4 convicts from fleeing, and is hailed as a hero and released. Outside of jail he discovers the harsh realities of life after running in the Gamin, a street waif, played by Paullete Goddard.
The Gamin, arrested for stealing a loaf of bread, is thrown in the paddy wagon. The Tramp convinces the police officer he s the thief, to save her, but a witness proves his claims to be false. Determined to free the poor girl, he tries to skip out on an enormous bill at a cafeteria, and gets arrested, freeing himself and the Gamin when the wagon crashes. From there the Tramp gets a job at a department store and allows the Gamin to hide inside, feeding her and the criminals he was supposed to stop as the nightwatchman. Jailed again for 10 days, the Gamin takes him to the new home she has found, a run down shack. Starting to live a happy life, The Tramp finds another factory job that lasts until the workers strike and he is arresting for accidentally assaulting a police officer. After 10 more days, he is released and takes a job as a waiter and singer at a cafe where the gamin has found work. After several waiting mishaps, he is told to sing a song. After losing his lyrics, he improvises some words in gibberish and pantomimes a song that the audience loves. In the end, the Gamin and the Tramp walk towards a beautiful sunset together, towards a hopeful future.
There are so many great things about this film. The first thing you should look at is the great comedy that Chaplin has here. The scenes inside the factory where he is trapped in the machinery are hilarious. Working on the assembly line or strapped to the feeding machine, Chaplin works a frenetic style of comedy that is both hilarious and genius at the same time. The scene on the assembly line is so iconic you actually see it reused later, especially the homage in a classic episode of I Love Lucy. Chaplin is a master at using the environment around him to be funny, he doesn't need jokes or gross out humor to find a laugh. He once said give me a park and a policeman, and I'll give you comedy, and in a cinematic world where everyone wanted more, Chaplin created a great film by using less.
By 1936, silent films were considered the kiss of death to a film, but Chaplin went onto to gross a fortune out of the picture. Audiences still loved the Little Tramp and his antics somehow were more timeless than the others. A large part of that was due to Chaplin's work ethic and movie making acumen. Having been in charge of all aspects of his productions for over a decade, Chaplin often re-shot scenes over and over until he felt he had the perfect take. Often times he would shoot the picture chronologically because he would constantly adjust and tweak the story, even during filming in order for his thoughts and actions to be fresher.
Modern Times integrated all the things that audiences loved about Chaplin's character in one last silent hurrah. Not only was his considered the last silent film made, it was the last time Chaplin would play the Tramp onscreen, retiring this character in the face of modern audiences, and modern times, like the title of the picture alludes. I think there is a lot of allegory in this film for Chaplin. The title alone, Modern Times, is representative of the age in which Chaplin finds himself. The last great silent star is being passed by, and he must either change with the times or be left back. This film is an homage to that silent era and to the Tramp character which afforded Chaplin such success. Modern times have come, and Chaplin rolls together all the elements one last time to remind us why we loved him in the first place. The film even lets the character walk off into the sunset, towards what is a hopeful future, much in the same way Chaplin would in future pictures.
Chaplin would continue to have success in the future with talking film. He would go onto to make his boldest film in The Great Dictator in 1940, a thinly veiled allegory on the Nazi party and all that it stood for. He even made several successful pictures in the 50's including Limelight in 1952 and a King in New York in 1957, but he fled America in 1954 due to tax problems and political scandal and a supposed tie to Communism. Chaplin was eventually award a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Academy Awards in 1972, marking his first return to Hollywood in nearly 20 years.
Modern Times represents the essence of all of Chaplin's films. The nature of his character, the nature of silent film making, a culmination of a lifetime of work in one last picture that still can make you laugh, all without the use of words. This is a great film to discover Chaplin with, from here you can look back through his career and see what had brought him to this film, with glimpses of concepts and ideas he had been toying with for years. It is the bridge between the Chaplin that was and the Chaplin that was about to be. Modern Times, written, produced and directed by Charles Chaplin, truly the last of his kind.
End of Line.