At a time when the art of filmmaking was rapidly churning toward the future, Charlie Chaplin was still fighting a one-man battle in favor of silent films. Famously he didn’t think much of talking pictures and predicted that they would die out in five years. So, he gleefully pressed on, working his magic in, what was perceived, as a dead art form. Chaplin’s contemporaries thought he was behind the times and he continued to fight a battle by keeping his films silent even though he didn’t make many in the sound era. As punishment, his last two silent films, City Lights and Modern Times, did not receive one single nomination.
The Jazz Singerwere totally silent, they incorporated sound effects and a line or two of dialogue, but both used sound as a means of being critical of the process. First was City Lights which opened with a political speech in which the audience only heard squawks coming from the speaker’s mouths. The other was Modern Times, a red-blooded assault on madness of the machine age.
Modern Times wasn’t his best film but it was certainly better than anything else released in 1936. It was one of his most important films mainly because it was his transition from silent to sound. Here he satirizes the process but there is a tone that suggests that he’s ready to move on. It is the most technologically innovative of his works yet it remains silent. The only noises come from machines and the only voices are heard over a radio, a monitor and a phonograph. The message is that Chaplin will move into the sound age, but that doesn’t mean he will give it any respect. The reason that the film is important is because it displays his best gifts for satire. His other films had satire but it bubbled under the surface – this film is more of a full-frontal assault. He exposes the madness of over-dependence on machines, the economic crisis, communist paranoia and man’s never-ending pursuit food, glorious food.
Most importantly, perhaps most famously, this is the film in which Chaplin bids farewell to The Tramp. There was some discussion of the possibility of giving the Tramp a speaking voice but Chaplin wouldn’t hear of it. When the studio insisted on it, he created a moment in which the Tramp sings a song, an odd tune called “Titania,” sung in gibberish.
Five years after City Lights, Chaplin uses The Tramp to show how the society has changed, how it has grown past his gentle nature and threatens to crush his fragile spirit. In the blistering maelstrom of The Great Depression (this was 1936) we find that The Tramp has had to join the work force, working ten hour days at a steel factory turning the bolts on a grotesque machine that frequently breaks down and constantly speeds up. As he turns the bolts on the conveyor belt, he has to catch up if he misses one. The machine finally swallows him, and The Tramp finds himself bending inside the machine’s cogs, but he’s so loopy that he doesn’t even notice.
Although the film finds The Tramp working it also underpins the same theme that Chaplin has always worked with, survival. After going insane, The Tramp is sent to a mental institution and after having been cured, the rest of the film chronicles his desperate search for work. At the docks he meets a gamine (Paulette Goddard), a plucky girl stealing bananas for her brothers and sisters. Food becomes a dominating goal for these two and one of the central themes of the picture: The gamin steals bananas and later bread; The Tramp is nearly killed by an automatic feeding machine that short circuits; The couple have cake in a department store where he works as the night watchman; He eats a very large meal that he can’t pay for in order to get thrown in jail where he will have decent food and a roof over his head; Later when he gets his job back at the factory he stops to have lunch even though his supervisor is stuck inside the machine; And he fantasizes about his dream house and coming home to the wife . . . at dinnertime.
Modern Timesis not that far removed from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Both films present a world besieged by the chaos of its own technology and both present the kinds of oppression that Orwell would brought to “1984”. The inside world is a crush of machines and noise, the outside world is awash in riots, strikes and marches. The Tramp, as always finds himself caught in the middle of one damn thing after another. The message is that things are tough all over, but as The Tramp confides in the gamin to keep chin up and spirits high because if you keep trying eventually, it will all work out.
Most of the Tramp’s efforts come to nothing, just when he has something it blows away in the wind and he finds that he has to start all over again. This has been the theme of the Tramp all along and, given his determination, we know that he will never give up.
It’s fitting that Chaplin’s Tramp bows out in Modern Times, one more film and I think he would have become dated. The world has moved past him, it’s grown too large and too fast for his gentle spirit to maintain. In the end we find him still searching for his dream, the difference is that in the end when he walks into the sunrise of a new day he doesn’t go alone. With that, we know he’ll be okay.