powered by AFI
Charlie is a worker in a factory whose demanding boss monitors and gives orders to his employees over an extensive closed-circuit TV system. Charlie's inability to keep up with the work causes moments of chaos in the plant, and the monotonously repetitive tasks finally cause him to crack, putting him in a mental hospital and out of a job. On his release, he encounters the turmoil of the Depression in labor strikes, political rallies, and shantytowns. He also befriends a feisty young girl, the Gamin, who lives by her wits on the streets and steals bread to survive. Helping her avoid the juvenile authorities who take her younger sisters away after their unemployed father dies, Charlie vows to get them a real home. But their adventures together prove they're not suited or destined for a normal settled life.
Director: Charles Chaplin
Producer: Charles Chaplin
Screenplay: Charles Chaplin
Cinematography: Ira Morgan, Rollie Totheroh
Editing: Willard Nico
Art Direction: J. Russell Spencer
Original Music: Charles ChaplinCast: Charlie Chaplin (A Factory Worker), Paulette Goddard (A Gamin), Henry Bergman (Caf Proprietor), Tiny Sandford (Big Bill), Chester Conklin (Mechanic), Hank Mann (Burglar).
Why MODERN TIMES is Essential
Years after sound took over the motion picture industry and public taste, Charles Chaplin released an essentially silent film - Modern Times. It was the last true silent ever made (not counting parodies and experimental pieces). When the careers of his fellow comedians of cinema's early years had begun to decline or already faded, Chaplin limned the comic possibilities of the Depression era and the dehumanizing effects of the Machine Age through the character he had created and sustained for two decades, the Little Tramp. Against all wisdom, he had a success with the movie, delighting audiences and garnering reviews that, although mixed in their assessment, agreed that Chaplin's genius for filmmaking was undeniable.
Chaplin actually intended to make Modern Times an all-talking picture but abandoned the idea. Although dialogue is mostly relegated to title cards and the story conveyed primarily through visuals and pantomime in the movie, speech is heard, but on Chaplin's terms. Rather than "live," it's electronically reproduced on giant video monitors and pre-recorded phonograph records; it's mechanized beyond the purely human, like the automatic feeding machine that Charlie is strapped into by management as an experiment. In the caf sequence that climaxes the story, singers, audience, and background noises are heard while the Tramp and Gamin carry on a scene in silence. Also, when at last we hear Charlie's voice, for the first time on film, it is singing gibberish, leaving us still dependent on his pantomime to understand the meaning.
Modern Times represents more than a refusal to move into talkies for the film actually comments on sound and plays with the conventions of both silent and talking pictures. In exploring this new technology, the form of the film becomes part of the content and the story itself becomes a reflection of the cinematic "modern times," an observation on the increasingly mechanized, factory-like production of movies, something far removed from the improvisational and leisurely way Chaplin was accustomed to working.
Ultimately, however, what audiences have responded to for years in Modern Times is not so much the formal qualities of the movie as the human, comic aspects of the story. It is almost a catalogue of Chaplin's greatest bits. He had created the Little Tramp in the early days of cinema and, in dozens of films over two decades, combining comedy and pathos to depict a person at odds with the world around him. His screen alter ego was always a misfit who usually finds a way to fit in and gain the home and companionship he craves, only to fail, time after time, walking off down the road alone. The character he created became the most universally recognized fictional figure in screen history, and in Modern Times Chaplin at last gives him a final gesture of hope and warmth in an increasingly hostile world, by sending him off down the road with a companion.
There are other considerable factors that mark Modern Times as a milestone, not least the artist's shift to the broader social and political satire he would explore further in the handful of films that followed. But all else aside, Modern Times would still be immortal if only for that final shot. Although they may not have known it at the time, it was the last time cinema audiences would ever see the Little Tramp.
by Rob Nixon
Modern Times (1936)
There have been a number of comparisons made between Modern Times and Chaplin's earlier pictures. For one thing, the plot device of the Tramp befriending girls who were either homeless or badly down on their luck had been used in such films as The Vagabond (1916), The Circus (1928), City Lights (1931), and later Limelight (1952).
Critics at the time (and since) have noted how many of the episodes in this film are similar to earlier Chaplin works: The Rink (1916), with its daredevil roller-skating ballet; The Floorwalker (1916), which also includes a scene of Charlie's difficulties with an escalator; and Easy Street (1917), in which he also battles criminals.
A resemblance has been noted between the factory boss's surveillance of his employees and his instructions to them via a giant screen and the video system later used by Big Brother in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The main melody Chaplin wrote for Modern Times had lyrics added to it in 1954 by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons; that's when it became known as "Smile." Nat King Cole recorded it and had a #10 hit on the Billboard charts that year. The lyrics ("Smile though your heart is aching/Smile even though it's breaking/When there are clouds in the sky/You'll get by") were no doubt inspired by the final moments of the film when Charlie tells the Gamin, "We'll get along," and enjoins her to smile. The song has been covered by such diverse performers as Michael Bolton, Eric Clapton, Lyle Lovett, Diana Ross, Tony Bennett, Jimmy Durante, and many others.
Robert Downey, Jr., who was Oscar®-nominated for playing the actor-director in the biopic Chaplin (1992), recorded "Smile" on his 2004 CD release "The Futurist."
In addition to Chaplin's own composition and his uncredited use of the melody of the French ditty "Titine," the score of Modern Times includes snippets of the popular songs "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum," "Prisoner's Song," "How Dry I Am," and "In the Evening by the Moonlight."
Chaplin's score for Modern Times was performed in the mid-1930s by the Philadelphia Philharmonic Orchestra under the title "A Modern Symphony."
The similarities between Modern Times and the French release nous la libert (1931), in which writer-director Ren Clair also satirized the mechanization of work and society, led to a lawsuit of more than a million dollars brought by the film's production company, Tobis, against Chaplin. The suit, however, was not supported by Clair, who insisted he had been strongly influenced throughout his career by Chaplin and was flattered that the great film artist would borrow from him.
by Rob Nixon
Modern Times (1936)
Previous to his nonsense song in Modern Times, Chaplin's voice had been heard only once before on film, saying "Guten tag" in a newsreel filmed during a stop in Vienna in 1931.
Chaplin was impressed with Paulette Goddard's honesty and energy from the moment he met her. Goddard had come to pictures by way of the Ziegfeld Follies and after a stint as an accomplice for a professional card sharp working on Transatlantic ocean liners. She had been married once before to a North Carolina lumber fortune heir and was living quite nicely on a healthy divorce settlement while appearing in film bits and as a blond "Goldwyn Girl." She was introduced to Chaplin in 1932. He bought out her contract, arranged for her to take acting lessons with Constance Collier, sent her to dance and exercise classes, and convinced her to let her hair go back to its natural brunette color. Goddard fit in well with both Chaplin's personal and professional life, and after living together for several years, they were married in 1936. During the time of their marriage, she was the leading contender for the role of Scarlett O'Hara before losing the part to Vivien Leigh and she appeared in Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940). They were separated that same year and divorced in 1942. She later married actor Burgess Meredith and then writer Erich Maria Remarque. Goddard's career was at its height in the 1940s. After that she worked less frequently but lived a full life, mostly in Europe, widely admired for her beauty, intelligence, exuberance, and generosity. She died in 1990.
Vivacious and outspoken, Paulette Goddard was interviewed at the time of Modern Times's release and presented by the press as highly critical of the conservatism and short-sightedness of much of the Hollywood community. Goddard noted that many of the film industry's most important people were easily swayed by fascism and would favor a move to Italy instead of dealing with increased taxation and the progressive policies of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. The interviewer noted that such a scheme to relocate the industry to Italy was indeed "afoot."
Modern Times was shot by Rollie Totheroh, who had worked exclusively on Chaplin's films (29 to this point) since his third picture as cinematographer in 1915. He later shot Chaplin's The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux (1947). Other than Chaplin's brother Sydney, Totheroh was the person with whom Chaplin had the longest working relationship. His final film, and one of only three without Chaplin, was Song of My Heart (1948), an obscure movie about Tchaikovsky. Totheroh died in 1967.
The other cinematographer on Modern Times was Ira Morgan, who shot more than 175 films in his 40-year career. Other than uncredited work as second assistant cameraman on The Immigrant (1917), this was his only work with Chaplin.
Several actors in Modern Times performed with Chaplin many times before, among them Henry Bergman (Caf Proprietor), Stanley "Tiny" Sandford (Big Bill), Chester Conklin (Mechanic), and Hank Mann (Burglar). He would use several of them again in his later pictures, as well as Paulette Goddard as his leading lady in The Great Dictator.
In November 1935, three months before the film's premiere, the American Communist journal, The New Masses, published a translation of Soviet film chief Boris Shumiatski's Pravda article in which he claimed Chaplin had changed his ending to a more suitably anti-capitalist one on Shumiatski's urging. The story was picked up by the New York Times, causing alarm among theater owners who were planning to exhibit the new film.
Chaplin wanted critics to see Modern Times with a general audience, so there were no previews and no advance screenings.
Modern Times premiered at the Rivoli Theater in New York on February 5, 1936. The opening had been delayed by a few weeks because Chaplin felt the picture was not quite ready. He did not attend the premiere because the last time he made a public appearance in New York he "had a terrible time battling through the crowds" everywhere he went and dreaded the prospect of "being stared and pointed at as though I were a freak."
Modern Times opened in Los Angeles on February 12, 1936, and went into general US release on February 21.
Although Alistair Cooke, in his book Garbo and the Night Watchmen (McGraw-Hill, 1971), said Modern Times was one of the most popular films of 1936, it has also been reported that, at $1.5 million in domestic receipts, the film brought in half a million less than Chaplin's previous picture, City Lights (1931), and was at the time his least profitable.
Upon its release in 1936, Modern Times was banned in Nazi Germany for "communistic tendencies," although some said it was due to Charlie's resemblance to Hitler (exploited a few years later in The Great Dictator). Still others suggested the Nazis disliked Chaplin because they suspected he was at least part Jewish.
Although released in Italy, Modern Times was frowned upon by Mussolini and his Fascist government.
In Austria, censors snipped the scene of Charlie inadvertently leading the mob with a red flag.
Eleven-year-old Gloria DeHaven made her film debut in an uncredited part as one of the Gamin's sisters. Her father, actor-director-producer Carter DeHaven, is credited as assistant director on Modern Times, although some reports say he had a hand in shaping the script as well. Gloria went on to become a popular child/juvenile star and a cabaret performer in her later years. Her most recent feature film was the Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau comedy Out to Sea (1997). Carter DeHaven helped produce and appeared in The Great Dictator.
Chaplin's friend and physician, Dr. Cecil Reynolds played a bit as the minister visiting the jail. Reynolds had previously appeared briefly in the Sherlock Holmes movie A Study in Scarlet (1933) and Frankenstein (1931), for which he also served as medical consultant/technical adviser.
During the run of Modern Times at the Rivoli Theater in New York, rival cinemas screened Chaplin's earlier works to compete.
Modern Times ended up costing around $1.5 million.
by Rob Nixon
Memorable Quotes from MODERN TIMES
OPENING TITLE CARD: Modern Times is a story of industry, of individual enterpriseof humanity crusading in pursuit of happiness.
TITLE CARD: Held as a communist leader, our innocent victim languishes in jail.
CHARLIE (TITLE CARD): We'll get a home, even if I have to work for it.
FROM CHARLIE'S NONSENSE SONG: Le spinash or le busho/Cigaretto toto bello/Ce rakish spagoletto/Se la tu la tu la twa...
GAMIN (TITLE CARD): What's the use of trying?
CHARLIE (TITLE CARD): Buck up, never say die. We'll get along.
Modern Times (1936)
By the end of the 1920s talking pictures were all the rage and the careers of most of the great silent clowns were either beginning to fade or were already over, yet Charles Chaplin boldly made City Lights (1931), his first film in three years, as a silent. While considered something of a novelty, the picture was received favorably enough by critics and audiences to convince Chaplin he could succeed on his own terms, defying trends and technological advances while seeking ways to explore the newly aural medium. He quickly learned he could even comment on and play with its emerging conventions and restrictions from the perspective of a silent filmmaker.
Following City Lights, Chaplin embarked on an extended world tour to promote his film globally. He was convinced by the editor of Women's Home Companion to document his journey in a five-part article for the magazine entitled "A Comedian Sees the World." In this article he related many of his experiences and impressions such as his thoughts on the condition of humanity and observations of the devastating effects of the Depression in Europe. He also addressed the political and economic crises erupting across the world, and his meetings with politicians, artists and such great thinkers as Einstein and Gandhi. Chaplin's own social and artistic circle had become more progressive and leftist, and all these factors brought about a shift in his views and the themes he wanted to explore in his work. He felt urged on by a growing sense that he was not simply a comic but an influential world artist. All of these factors were early inspiration for Modern Times.
Chaplin heard and read stories, at home and abroad, about young men who had suffered breakdowns after financial necessity forced them to leave behind rural life for grindingly repetitive and impersonal factory work.
Another influence on Chaplin's ideas for Modern Times was Ren Clair's satire nous la libert (1931), set in a mechanized factory where workers are reduced to mere automatons. (The inspiration was strong enough to cause the French distributors to sue Chaplin years later.)
In an interview shortly after the release of Modern Times, Chaplin described an incident that he said inspired the theme and title: "I was riding in my car one day and saw a mass of people coming out of a factory, punching time clocks, and was overwhelmed with the knowledge that the theme note of modern times is mass production. I wondered what would happen to the progress of the mechanical age if one person decided to act like a bull in a china shop."
Various other inspirations have been credited for Modern Times, among them Chaplin's apprenticeship as a printer's devil at the age of 12, dwarfed by an enormous printing press; awareness of the increasingly mechanized and regimented automotive assembly lines in Detroit; and a huge conveyor-driven dishwashing machine he saw in a Los Angeles restaurant.
Upon his return from his world trip, Chaplin toyed with several film ideas for Modern Times, including a documentary on the Balinese dancing he had seen in Indonesia and the revival of an old idea about a Napoleon and Josephine story, which he pursued seriously enough to hire a young British journalist and aspiring playwright, Alistair Cooke, to help him develop. At the same time, he was also working with another assistant, the former vaudevillian Carter de Haven, on a satire about the factory system with his Little Tramp character causing chaos on an assembly line. His initial notes called for an opening shot of smoke billowing from the chimney of the "Electrical Metal Corporation" factory where the manager exhorts his workers to speed up production via a closed-circuit television.
It has been said that Chaplin experienced a burst of creative and emotional energy after meeting a young starlet on movie mogul Joseph Schenck's yacht. Her name was Paulette Goddard, and she had appeared only in bits and as one of the Goldwyn Girls chorus. She would become his constant companion, eventually his wife, and his leading lady in Modern Times. It has also been said that Goddard made story idea contributions to Modern Times as well as suggestions about her Gamin character.
In his early notes for his new movie, Chaplin briefly considered a story involving rebellious factory workers, "a drama of communism and everybody getting two cars."
During this period, Chaplin and Alistair Cooke were at Chaplin's house playing piano duets, including a risqu cabaret song called "Titine," which would find its way into Modern Times, albeit transformed into a nonsense song for the film debut of Chaplin's voice. During the number, Chaplin reportedly turned to Cooke and announced that he no longer wanted to pursue the Napoleon and Josephine project.
The factory project was called simply "Production No. 5" at first; later it was referred to under the title "The Masses."
At some point in the development stage of Modern Times, Chaplin began creating a story, which he related to a reporter at the time, about his Tramp character picking up a fallen red danger flag from a truck. He begins running after the vehicle waving the flag with the intention of getting the driver's attention and returning it, only to be mistakenly arrested as a political agitator. The film would then build to a climactic rally at which the character would accidentally become a symbol, and perhaps leader, of the masses. At this point, the ending he envisioned was similar to the inspirational one he would later use in The Great Dictator (1940). Soon after, however, he backed away from the overtly political theme and title ("The Masses").
The original script of Modern Times called for substantial bits of dialogue, confirming Chaplin's early plans to make a sound film. Some analysts have also noted that the dialogue script indicated a shift in his working methods from extensive improvisation to a more scripted and efficient style; in the past Chaplin's films often experienced delays due to blocking problems and reshoots.
by Rob Nixon
Modern Times (1936)
Modern Times was the first picture on which Chaplin used a shooting script. This was so uncharacteristic for him that Variety even featured an article in September 1934, just before shooting began, about how the script and the construction of sets were evidence he was "thru with hit and miss sked." The article noted that increased production costs and planned location shooting at the San Pedro docks necessitated a faster pace. Predictions that the movie would be completed by the end of 1934, however, proved to be inaccurate.
The filming of Modern Times began in mid October 1934 and lasted until the end of August 1935. Ten months was a long time for principal photography on a motion picture at the time, but was considered fast work for a Chaplin film.
Henry Bergman, who also played the Caf Proprietor, and Carter DeHaven assisted Chaplin with direction.
The elaborate factory and department store sets were built at great expense at Chaplin's studios. Empty lots were rented for street sets, and three streets were built at the San Pedro waterfront.
At the start of production, Chaplin was apparently still planning to make a complete sound film. The studio's open-air stage was enclosed, consistent with sound production, and Chaplin and Goddard made sound tests and actually shot some scenes with dialogue. But the footage was scrapped and the picture proceeded as a silent with added sound effects.
Shooting silent allowed Chaplin the option of cranking the camera at any speed he wanted, 16, 18 or 24 frames per second. This allowed him a flexibility of rhythm and movement in any scene.
Publicity records for Modern Times indicate 400 people were hired for the caf scene, and photographs exist of Chaplin himself, on a high tower, directing hundreds of other extras in the opening crowd shot, as opposed to the usual practice of assigning such a task to a second unit director.
Although filmmaking had become the province of large teams of highly specialized technicians, Chaplin resisted delegating tasks, involving himself in every aspect of production, even to the point of blowing bubbles in a pail of water to simulate stomach-grumbling sounds.
According to some accounts, working together on Modern Times put a strain on Chaplin and Goddard's relationship. Contrary to the way young actresses were presented on screen, Paulette was to wear shabby clothing and no make-up as the Gamin. When she showed up for filming with her hair beautifully coiffed, he dumped a bucket of water over her head.
In early spring 1935, someone at the studio leaked word to the press that Chaplin's "Production No. 5" was now being called "The Masses," fueling speculation that the known leftist was making a pro-communist film. Chaplin issued a statement denying the rumor about the proposed title, although at the time it was still true.
By late spring 1935, Chaplin was working sixteen to eighteen hours a day on Modern Times, often sleeping on a cot at the studio.
Fears on the part of conservatives and optimism from leftists that Chaplin was making a communist tract intensified in July 1935 when it was learned that he had screened portions of the work in progress for members of the visiting Soviet Cinema Commission. Boris Shumiatski, head of the USSR's film industry, wrote an article in Pravda upon his return home claiming he had persuaded Chaplin to change the ending of the picture. Chaplin had, in fact, shot an ending (still frames exist) in which the Tramp suffers a breakdown and, upon release from the hospital, finds the Gamin has now become a nun. He scrapped that finale, but not for the one Shumiatski claimed he would make, in which Charlie and the Gamin would decide "to work and fight together against the 'machine of time,' a euphemism for capitalist society."
Another scene Chaplin apparently shot (judging from existing stills) but scrapped was one in which the department store burglars clean out the silver department. Chaplin decided that would make them no more than common thieves, when his intention was to show them turning to crime purely out of economic desperation.
On the recommendation of Eddie Powell, chief assistant to noted composer and musical director Alfred Newman, Chaplin hired David Raksin to help him write and record the score. Only twenty-three years old at the time, Raksin was already a seasoned composer and arranger. After reviewing what Chaplin had composed, Raksin offered the opinion that it wasn't good enough for the film, nor was it modern enough or of sufficient "symphonic dimension." He was fired after one week, but rehired at Newman's urging and allowed to state his case. The rift was quickly patched and from that point, the two worked together well, having great fun coordinating musical ideas directly into the action running on a Moviola, instead of using timing sheets, the usual method of scoring. Raksin said that although Chaplin was not a professional musician, his command of musical styles, instrumental qualities, and development of melody and theme were impressive.
While working on the music, Chaplin would relate to Raksin his ideas for other stories: the Napoleon project again, in which Raksin would be cast as Stendhal, and a picture about the Haymarket riots in Chicago, which would have had people talking once again about Chaplin's leftist politics. By the end of their collaboration, Chaplin was treating Raksin like a son, inviting him to weekends on his yacht and lending him his chauffeur-driven Cadillac to impress an actress the young man was dating.
Alfred Newman, musical director for United Artists (the studio Chaplin had founded with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith), was brought in to record and conduct the score. Chaplin had been dissatisfied with the orchestral work on his previous picture, City Lights (1931), so this time he sat in on all recording sessions, interrupting often, ordering retakes, overruling Newman's instructions to the orchestra, and taking the recording sessions into the early morning hours. During one especially tense all-night session, he accused Newman of laziness. The conductor stomped out and never worked with Chaplin again. Newman's assistant, Eddie Powell, took over conducting for the remainder of the work.
Several sequences from Modern Times were cut before release on the recommendation of the Hays Office. According to a January 6, 1936, memo from Joseph Breen, the eliminations needed because of "vulgarity" were:
"1) The first part of the 'pansy' gag [no doubt referring to the jail cellmate whose knitting disconcerts Charlie]
2) The word 'dope' in a printed title
3) Most of the business of the stomach rumbling on the part of the minister's wife and Charlie
4) The entire brassiere gag in the department store
5) The close-up shot of the udders of the cow."
The cuts were done and the film approved by censors on January 13, 1936.
by Rob Nixon
Modern Times (1936)
Just as City Lights (1931) began its theatrical run, Charles Chaplin embarked on a worldwide ocean voyage. Cinema's first comedic superstar showed that he could still draw without giving in to the advent of the talking picture, but he harbored a distaste for what he found to be technology's encroachment on his medium in ending the silence that he exploited so well. In the course of his trip, every stop on the globe reflected evidence of the Great Depression, and the images of herds of the unemployed moved him profoundly. These twin sentiments fueled the project that he began drawing up on his return to America, and the end result, Modern Times (1936), stands as a comic classic and a memorable last stand for the greatest clown figure of silent farce.
The Tramp's screen farewell places him among the assembly-line workers at the massive facility of the "Electro Steel Corp.," where the labor force is constantly hectored to step up production on whatever the indeterminate goods are that the factory produces. Chaplin's workday existence is a constant struggle to keep up with demand. In the film's signature image, his attempts to complete his bolt-tightening duties drags him literally into the corporate machinery, as he makes a seal-like slide between the massive cogs. Afterwards, the company president (Allan Garcia) interrupts his attempts to sneak a smoke in the men's room via a massive closed-circuit TV, and he's made the guinea pig for a time-saving automated feeding device that goes hilariously haywire.
The pressure ultimately causes Chaplin to snap, and he begins to take his wrenches to everything in sight. His factory-wide rampage results in his being hauled away by the police. After circumstances result in his inadvertent foiling of a prison breakout situation, Chaplin becomes very comfortable with his trustee status, and balks once he's ultimately pardoned to the cruel world outside.
It's at this juncture that the Tramp's story converges with that of a vivacious young gamin (Paulette Goddard) who determinedly loots produce in order to feed her hungry younger siblings. After her jobless father falls victim to gunfire at a labor rally, she's force to stay a jump ahead of the youth services that have gathered up her remaining family. Once the Tramp's efforts to take the rap for her thievery (and happily return to jail) prove fruitless, the two vagabonds elect to set up demure housekeeping in a dilapidated Hooverville shanty and try to make a go of their lives. Their efforts to do so drive Modern Times the rest of the way to the fade-out.
In forging Modern Times, Chaplin continued to balk at the advent of synchronous dialogue; while he mulled the possibility to the point of commissioning spoken scripts for himself and Goddard, he scrapped those plans and went with his gut sentiments. Indeed, wherever the spoken word arrives on Modern Times's soundtrack, it's not without irony. The script's other players find voice only when speaking through some mechanical medium like an intercom or a phonograph record.
This holds true for the highly anticipated payoff moment when Chaplin speaks for the very first time onscreen. His attempts at gainful employment find him landing a position as a singing waiter; at a key moment during his debut, he loses the crib notes of his lyrics. He then opts to vamp in a bizarre doublespeak his own creation, and uses pantomime to convey the story of the ribald ditty to the delight of the crowd.
Modern Times also benefited from the most effective use of the musical score for a Chaplin film to date. Engaged to the project was David Raksin, who at age 23 already had several successful Broadway scores to his credit. The young composer was a shade too candid in his opinions regarding Chaplin's musical concepts for the story, and the willful director fired him within a week. United Artists quickly arranged a face-to-face, where Raksin gamely made his case, according to Joyce Milton's Tramp: The Life of Charlie Chaplin (HarperCollins). "If you're looking for another hanger on or an acolyte, you already have them by the dozen," the composer asserted. Chaplin agreed to start fresh, and the collaboration proceeded far more smoothly.
Goddard's pert performance in her feature debut also merits note. An ex-Ziegfeld Girl, Hal Roach bit player and well-off young divorcee, she came into Chaplin's life soon after he returned from his ocean junket, and within weeks he had bought out her Roach contract and moved her into his Beverly Hills home. Even though she was only 21, her maturity level outstripped that of Chaplin's two ex-wives, and Chaplin crafted a role for her in Modern Times that gave her an equal footing unprecedented for past leading ladies. Beautiful, determined and just as doggedly optimistic as The Tramp, Goddard's Gamine proved to be a heroine worthy of our irrepressible protagonist and provided an arm to link with for that final walk into the sunset.
While the sociopolitical motifs of Modern Times no doubt caused many an arched eyebrow among conservatives of the period, they arguably were motifs and nothing more. "While perhaps sympathetic to the rhetoric of the American Left, Chaplin's narrative for Modern Times shows a flirtation with, but not a full embrace of, progressive political causes," Eric L. Flom stated in Chaplin in the Sound Era (McFarland & Company). "...[T]hough the issues raised in the picture could be viewed as partisan in nature, he would keep his film politically ambiguous."
At the time of its release, Modern Times was popularly praised, but its receipts fell short of those garnered by City Lights, which had been released at the Depression's height. Some blamed the refusal to embrace dialogue, others the politically charged material. Chaplin apparently only learned half a lesson, as he would next jump into sound and politics with both feet in taking on The Great Dictator (1940).
Producer: Charles Chaplin
Director: Charles Chaplin
Screenplay: Charles Chaplin
Cinematography: Ira Morgan, Roland Totheroh
Art Direction: Charles D. Hall, Russell Spencer
Music: Charles Chaplin, David Raksin
Cast: Charles Chaplin (Factory Worker), Paulette Goddard (Gamine), Henry Bergman (Cafe owner), Tiny Sandford (Big Bill), Chester Conklin (Mechanic), Hank Mann (Burglar).
by Jay Steinberg
Modern Times (1936)
AWARDS AND HONORS
In 1989, Modern Times was chosen by the National Film Preservation Board to be one of the films preserved in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.
In 1974, on the basis of Modern Times and The Great Dictator (1940), Charles Chaplin was awarded Best Foreign Filmmaker in the Jussi Awards, the national film award of Finland. Modern Times had been re-released in that country the previous year.
In 2004, "The Charlie Chaplin Collection," which included Modern Times, The Great Dictator, The Gold Rush (1925), and Limelight (1952), was nominated as Best Classic DVD Release by the International Press Academy Golden Satellite Awards.
Critics Corner: MODERN TIMES
"Went to see Charlie's picture last night. The part about the factory was very interesting and charming, but the rest just repeats Chaplin's old material."
novelist and activist Upton Sinclair in a letter, February 1936, echoing the sentiment of many who passed initial judgment on the picture as too reminiscent of his earlier shorts and little more than just a collection of gags
"Modern Times has still the same old Charlie, the lovable little fellow whose hands and feet and prankish eyebrows can beat an irresistible tattoo upon an audience's funnybone or hold it still, taut beneath the spell of human tragedy. A flick of his cane, a quirk of a brow, an impish lift of his toe and the mood is off; a droop of his mouth, a sag of his shoulder, a quick blink of his eye and you are his again, a companion in suffering. Or do you have to be reminded that Chaplin is a master of pantomime? Time has not changed his genius. ... Sociological concept? Maybe. But a rousing, rib-tickling, gag-bestrewn jest for all that and in the best Chaplin manner. ... So it goes, and mighty pleasantly, too, with Charlie keeping faith with his old public by bringing back the tricks he used so well when the cinema was very young, and by extending his following among the moderns by employing devices new to the clown dynasty. If you need more encouragement than this, be informed then that Miss Goddard is a winsome waif and a fitting recipient of the great Charlot's championship...."
Frank S. Nugent, New York Times, February 2, 1936
"The picture is grand fun and sound entertainment, though silent. It's the old Chaplin at his best, looking at his bestyoung, pathetic and a very funny guy. He remains the world's No. 1 pantomimist, and the greatest panto artist since the Frenchman Severin. Whatever sociological meanings some will elect to read into Modern Times, there's no denying that as a cinematic entertainment it's wholesomely funny. Every whimsy, every humorous turn, every comicality is born of a legitimate situation."
Abel Green, Variety, February 12, 1936
"The cinema's First Immortal returns to us after an absence of almost five years in a comedy for fun-lovers, egalitarians, and philosophers."
Richard Watts, Jr., New York Herald Tribune, 1936
"Charlie Chaplin's work, like that of Moliere, to which it is akin, will never die because his genius enabled him to draw universal conclusions from his observations of the human environment."
Jean Benoit-Levy, The Art of the Motion Picture (Coward-McCann, 1946)
"To see Charlie grappling with the problems and frustrations of the modern world which were so real to millions of people was a new experience, and Chaplin grew accordingly in stature and popular affection. Modern Times was the last film of Charlie the tramp, but it was a foretaste of the later masterpieces. ... With these films humour became harnessed to a wider satirical aim directed no longer merely at particular individual situations but at the major evils of our times."
Louis Marks, Films and Filming, October 1954
"Chaplin himself is not dated, never will be; he is a reservoir of humor, master of an infinite array of dodges, agile in both mind and body; he is not only a character but a complex character, with the perfect ability to make evident all the shades of his odd and charming feelings; not only a touching character, but a first-class buffoon and I guess the master of our time in dumb show. ... The general reaction to [Modern Times] anyway is the wonder that these primitive formulas can be so genuinely comic and endearing."
Otis Ferguson, The Film Criticism of Otis Ferguson (Temple University Press, 1971)
"[Chaplin] had proven his greatness in every possible way; but then at 81 he decided to put some of his films back on the market and see how they fared. They are faring very well, you might say. Here in Chicago, they're booked in the Carnegie Theater, where the staff hardly knows what hit it. Modern Times (1936), the first of seven Chaplin programs, was SRO all weekend, and when I saw it on Sunday afternoon, the audience was just about beside itself with delight. I go to a lot of movies, and I can't remember the last time I heard a paying audience actually applaud at the end of a film. But this one did. And the talk afterward in the aisles, in the lobby, and in line at the parking garage was genuinely excited; maybe a lot of these people hadn't seen much Chaplin before, or were simply very happy to find that the passage of time have [sic] not diminished the man's special genius."
Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, January 25, 1972
"Modern Times was seemingly made under the twin influences of Walt Disney (the cartoon-like use of sound effects) and Fritz Lang (the vast art deco factory that initially employs the Little Tramp). More than any previous Chaplin film, albeit setting the precedent for all subsequent ones, Modern Times was a statement-Chaplin's conscious, if sentimental, attempt to locate his alter ego in the context of class struggle. ... Modern Times' music hall celebration of the 'little guy' looks forward to Italian neorealism-there are intimations of De Sica and especially Fellini. ... [It] remains Chaplin's most sustained burlesque of authority."
J. Hoberman, Village Voice, December 23, 2003
"Every time the Castro shows Modern Times, someone sees a Charlie Chaplin feature for the first timeand a door opens on something wonderful. ... For all its comedy, Modern Times is a film born of serious concerns. Chaplin had a horror of automation, which he saw as symptomatic of a trend in modern life to turn people into machines, with machine lives and thoughts. At the time this movie was being made, the rich and powerful were organizing, either through totalitarian ideologies or through control of goods and technology. The sweetness of life was becoming lost, and Modern Times was Chaplin's comic response. ... Modern Times is an ungainly masterpiece, but Chaplin's ungainliness is something one can grow fond of. He was a thinker, but he was too emotional to think straight, and, at this stage, too much of a performer to let ideas get in the way of a great gag. ... Some reactionaries accused the film of being 'communistic,' but that was absurd: The film's hero and heroine wouldn't have lasted 15 minutes under a Stalinist regime. If anything, Chaplin was an individualist."
Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle, December 26, 2003
"The last appearance of the Chaplin tramp, before Hitler, Monsieur Verdoux and other personae took over. Antics and situations from the earliest shorts are revived in a narrative framework designed to portray 'humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness', as the opening title puts it; the tramp faces the perils of factory machinery, poverty, starvation and Depression unrestand just about survives. Chaplin's political and philosophical naivety now seems as remarkable as his gift for pantomime."
Geoff Brown, Time Out Film Guide (Penguin Books, 2007)
by Rob Nixon