- Director: Charlie Chaplin
- Writer: Charlie Chaplin
- Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman, Tiny Sandford, and Chester Conklin
- Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#78), 2012 Sight & Sound Top 100 list (#63)
- Where to Watch: Free streaming on Hoopla or Kanopy (library apps), stream with subscription on HBO Max and The Criterion Channel, buy or rent on Amazon Video or Apple TV
Modern Times is not really a silent movie, in the sense that it has synced sound, some dialogue, and even the main character singing. But it has also been called “the last movie of the silent era,” and this title rings true even though it came out a full nine years after The Jazz Singer. It certainly is the final movie for Charlie Chaplin’s distinctive “Tramp” character, thought to have been, at one time, the most famous image in the world. It ends with the Tramp and his “partner,” named only as “the Gamin” (Paulette Goddard, who was dating Chaplin at the time) traipsing off down the road into the idyllic distance, and we can imagine that all turned out well for them, and for all of the denizens of the weird, wonderful alternate universe of silent movies.
Yet the movie was also intended to be very “relevant” in its time, and still feels that way today. Following the release of City Lights, Chaplin had gone on a worldwide promotional tour for several years, during which he bore witness to many of the worst effects of the Great Depression on society, and even reportedly had a discussion with Mahatma Gandhi about the relative merits of technology. Chaplin depicts technology not as a savior of civilization, but as a dehumanizing scourge. His character here is twice arrested for inadvertently participating in political violence. The Tramp repeatedly gets arrested on purpose, because his life is better in jail than it is on the outside. It is all so antithetical to the theory of the exceptional, ever-thriving American Dream that the movie, and Chaplin himself, were immediately accused of communism. As with later accusations from the Nazis of being a “secret Jew,” Chaplin refused to address the accusations since that would have implied that being a Communist was bad.
The Tramp opens the movie as a worker at an oversized, ultra-automated factory, all dials and gears. This leads to the movie’s most famous visual moment, where Chaplin is sucked into the gears of the machine. He soon has a nervous breakdown, gets fired, and ends up in jail. There he accidentally does cocaine (this was not a joke I was expecting from a silent movie) and accidentally foils a breakout while he hallucinates, leading to him being released for good behavior. In an effort to be able to buy a house for himself and the Gamin, Chaplin then gets a job as a security guard at a department store, but he is fired after he gets drunk (by accident again) and ends up making friends with a bunch of robbers, who we are meant to realize are just desperate people ground down by society instead of actual bad guys.
Late in the movie, Goddard’s character gets Chaplin a job at a nightclub, where the owner decides he is going to be part of the act. There is a long build-up where the Tramp practices his song, writing the lyrics on his shirt cuff, then inadvertently throws the cuff away just as he’s about to start. Chaplin then sings the song in complete gibberish, words that sound like various languages but aren’t really any of them. The crowd goes wild, and the nightclub manager loves it. This is of course an extremely cheeky and clever way for Chaplin to handle the demands that his character speak on screen, several years after the advent of movie sound technology. It is also hard to read as anything other than another Chaplin comment on the pointlessness of words, as the audience goes crazy for the nonsensical song. I’m reminded of the opening of City Lights, where we watch politicians open their mouths only to hear Charlie Brown-style trombone sounds. This can be seen as a joke about politicians, or as a comment on the uselessness of dialogue in general.
Among the many things that really surprised me about Modern Times was the performance of Goddard, who I had honestly never seen in a movie before. Perhaps because she has genuinely dirty (not faux movie dirty), unkempt hair for a lot of it, and is also not flinging her performance to the cheap seats with wild hand gestures like many of her contemporaries, she feels like an actress from 2021 pulled into a silent pastiche. Which is to say, she acts and looks very modern, in a few ways I can put my finger on and a lot of ways I can’t. I’d submit this extends even to the later stages of the movie, after she “cleans up” and gets the job at the nightclub. She genuinely holds her own opposite Chaplin in a comedy sense, as well. This was the final appearance of the Tramp, and it was here that he finally seems to meet someone operating on his same level.
Chaplin hung on to his silent film world longer than anyone else, but this would be his final silent movie. He is fiddling with dialogue here, though it’s noteworthy that most of it comes out of electronic or recorded devices. In perhaps the most famous example of this, two salesman arrive at the factory where the Tramp works to try and sell the owner a Rube Goldberg-type device that automatically feeds the workers so they don’t have to take lunch breaks. They put on a record with a recording of a sales pitch, but never actually talk themselves.
Chaplin’s later films, including The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux, were often so controversial that it has taken decades for them to be truly appreciated. He ended up in something approaching exile in England, where he rode out the Red Scare, before making his triumphant return to accept a Lifetime Achievement Oscar. But Modern Times was a hit at the time, and has been beloved ever since. I said in a previous article that I think The Gold Rush is my favorite Chaplin movie, and I’d say it still is, but I think there’s a strong argument to be made that Modern Times is overall the “greater” or “better” of the two films. While The Gold Rush remains the fun adventure movie it was at the time, the commentary on modern society in Modern Times remains relevant. It even includes what I’m told may be the first ever fart joke in the movies, with the accompanying sound effects reportedly made by Chaplin blowing bubbles in a drink using a straw. And if that’s not enough to be considered a classic, I don’t know what is.