Everyone should have a favorite silent-era comedian, as everyone should have a favorite Beatle and a favorite Civil War general. And it’s either Chaplin or Keaton or you’re wrong.
But must we trivialize one when celebrating the other as if we weren’t blessed with both? Is someone holding a blowtorch to the only respective reels of City Lights and The General and forcing us to choose one for posterity?
Given the number of films from Chaplin’s and Keaton’s time that vanished, the volume of their work that survives—and that exists today in complete form, often in restored prints—is a cinematic miracle. Even many of their less-celebrated films hold up well in modern times.
One, in fact, is Chaplin’s Modern Times, which I recently had the rare opportunity to enjoy on the big screen with an audience alternately enrapt by its visual magic and wracked with laughter so full-bodied I feared the elderly man behind me would loose his bladder. Modern Times isn’t as sentimental as The Kid, as cohesive as The Gold Rush or as romantic as City Lights, but scattershot though it may be, Modern Times remains one of the funniest silent comedies.
The tangential plot concerns Chaplin’s Tramp character, here—as billed in the credits—a Factory Worker on a fast-paced assembly line (early sequences in which he struggles to keep up with the breakneck conveyor belt were later given a famous spin on TV by I Love Lucy; there is also a great repetitive gag about repetitive-stress disorder that predates the term itself by decades). The job’s demands—people are literally chewed up and spit out by the machinery—fuel a slapstick breakdown that results in the Worker’s unemployment.
The factory scenes, which comprise roughly the first third of the movie, are Chaplin at his most cinematically engaged. The set design evokes Metropolis in its timeless futurism and imposing nature, and Chaplin makes the most of its moving parts. The prescient video monitors through which the factory boss surveils and instructs his employees are used to great comedic effect, and the demonstration of the malfunctioning automaton alleged to eliminate lunch breaks elicited legitimate guffaws from the audience (indeed, the crowd applauded at film’s end; something I haven’t heard in a long while).
Alas, once Chaplin looses the Tramp/Factory Worker on the streets, the pace slackens and the tone veers. Which is not to say the remainder of Modern Times is without its merits.
Jobless and aimless, the Worker stumbles into a Communist demonstration and is mistakenly arrested by the police Red Squad as its leader (some of the sociopolitical commentary is disappointingly relevant). His release leads to a droll, recurring bit in which the Worker seeks re-arrest in order to have shelter and daily meals. One of these efforts prompts an encounter—and eventual romance—with a pretty and newly homeless young woman (Paulette Goddard, credited as “The Gamin”), who is attempting to steal bread, and for whom the Worker is happy to take the fall.
The couple reunites after additional comic run-ins with the law and attempts to go straight, with the Worker first proving a disaster as the night watchman of a department store, then landing another factory job just in time for a strike. The Gamin, meanwhile, catches on as a dancer at a café, where she finagles the Worker a gig as a singing waiter, the problem of course being that the Tramp cannot sing … or can he?
Modern Times is, to some effect, the last true silent film. Though its themes about industrialization and classism remain timely, and most of its humor still plays well, the movie marks the end of an era.
Yes, it is a silent-sound hybrid like Chaplin’s own City Lights (1931) and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) in its use of sound effects and minimal dialogue, and yes, there have since been silent parodies, shorts, experimental films and gimmicky nostalgia like The Artist. But Modern Times was the final traditional silent film produced by a Hollywood studio until Mel Brooks’s The Silent Movie (1976), a silly but watchable homage built on broad performances and sight gags that make one appreciate the artistry of Chaplin’s melodiously orchestrated visual comedy all the more.
Modern Times is also the Tramp’s farewell, although aspects of the character are effectively employed in 1940’s The Great Dictator, Chaplin’s first proper talkie and a movie receiving renewed attention in this Trumpian age thanks to its scary-timely speech about tyranny. The Tramp was a character of and for the silent era, yet being in his company again made me wish there was a little more silence in these modern times.