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Behind the Camera - Modern Times
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Modern Times,Modern Times

Behind the Camera on MODERN TIMES

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 Café 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 café 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