This episodic satire of the Machine Age is considered Charles Chaplin’s last “silent” film, although Chaplin uses sound, vocal, and musical effects throughout. Chaplin stars as an assembly-line worker driven insane by the monotony of his job. After a long spell in an asylum, he searches for work, only to be mistakenly arrested as a Red agitator.
A lot of movies are said to be timeless, but somehow in their immortality they fail to draw audiences. They lead a sort of half-life in film society revivals, and turn up every now and then on the late show. They’re classics, everyone agrees, but that word “classic” has become terribly cheap in relation to movies. It’s applied so promiscuously that by now the only thing you can be sure of about a “film classic” is that it isn’t actually in current release.
One of the many remarkable things about Charlie Chaplin is that his films continue to hold up, to attract and delight audiences. Chaplin hasn’t really been active in movies for 20 years, aside from “A King in New York” in 1957 and the unfortunate “A Countess from Hong Kong” five years ago.
“Modern Times”, 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.
“Modern Times” was Charlie’s first film after five years of hibernation in the 1930s. He didn’t much like talkies, and despite the introduction of sound in 1927, his “City Lights” was defiantly silent.
With “Modern Times,” a fable about (among other things) automation, assembly lines and the enslaving of man by machines, he hit upon an effective way to introduce sound without disturbing his comedy of pantomime: The voices in the movie are channeled through other media. The ruthless steel tycoon talks over closed-circuit television, a crackpot inventor brings in a recorded sales pitch, and so on. The only synched sound is Charlie’s famous tryout as a singing waiter; perhaps after Garbo spoke, the only thing left was for Charlie to sing.
These are just a handful of moments that make Modern Times the enduring masterpiece that it is. On a personal level, the aspect of the film that resonates strongest with me is its appeal to the idealistic misfit in all of us. In our hearts, many of us long for the simplicity and exuberance with which The Tramp and The Gamin live life.
As Chaplin so skillfully shows, however, our modern times make this lifestyle a faded dream, lost among the sheep-like herds of men and women scurrying through a modern metropolis that only Fritz Lang could make seem darker and more devoid of true humanity. Still, the final image of Modern Times refuses to let the film end on an exclusively tragic note and demonstrates that the individual is still alive and may yet find his way in an ever-changing world.
Until tomorrow: All things truly wicked start from innocence.