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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