Modern Times - Film (Movie) Plot and Review





USA, 1935


Director: Charles Chaplin

Production: United Artists-Charles Chaplin; black and white, 35mm, mostly synchronized musical soundtrack; running time: 85 minutes; length: 7634 feet. Released 1936.

Modern Times
Modern Times

Producer: Charles Chaplin; screenplay: Charles Chaplin; photography: Rollie Totheroh and Ira Morgan; editor: Charles Chaplin; art directors: Charles D. Hall and J. Russell Spencer; music directors: Alfred Newman; music: Charles Chaplin; music arrangers: David Raksin and Edward Powell.


Cast: Charles Chaplin ( A Worker ); Paulette Goddard ( A Gamine ); Henry Bergman ( Café proprietor ); Chester Conklin ( Mechanic ); Stanley Sandford, Louis Natheux, and Hank Mann ( Burglars ); Allan Garcia ( President of a steel corporation ).


Publications


Books:

Cooke, Alistair, editor, Garbo and the Night Watchman , London, 1937.

Tyler, Parker, Chaplin, Last of the Clowns , New York, 1947.

Cotes, Peter, and Thelma Miklaus, The Little Fellow , London, 1951.

Huff, Theodore, Charlie Chaplin , New York, 1951.

Mitry, Jean, Charlot et la "fabulation" chaplinesque , Paris, 1957.

Amengual, Barthélemy, Charles Chaplin , Paris, 1963.

Chaplin, Charlie, My Autobiography , London, 1964.

McDonald, Gerald, and others, The Films of Charlie Chaplin , Secaucus, New Jersey, 1965.

Martin, Marcel, Charlie Chaplin , Paris, 1966; 2nd edition, 1983.

Eisenstein, Sergei, Film Essays and a Lecture , edited by Jay Leyda, London, 1968; Princeton, 1982.

Mitry, Jean, Tout Chaplin: Tous les films, par le texte, par le gag, et par l'image , Paris, 1972.

Chaplin, Charlie, My Life in Pictures , London, 1974.

Sadoul, Georges, Vie de Charlot , Paris, 1978.

Lorcey, J., Charlot , Paris, 1978.

Lyons, T. J., Charles Chaplin: A Guide to References and Resources , Boston, 1979.

Haining, Peter, editor, The Legend of Charlie Chaplin , London, 1982.

Gehring, Wes D., Charlie Chaplin: A Bio-Bibliography , Westport, Connecticut, 1983.

Robinson, David, Chaplin: The Mirror of Opinion , London, 1983.

Smith, Julian, Chaplin , Boston, 1984.

Robinson, David, Chaplin: His Life and Art , London, 1985.

Saint-Martin, Catherine, Charlot/Chaplin; ou, La Conscience du Mythe , Paris, 1987.

Silver, Charles, Charles Chaplin: An Appreciation , New York, 1990.

Lynn, Kenneth S., Charlie Chaplin and His Times , New York, 1997.

Milton, Joyce, Tramp: The Life of Charlie Chaplin , New York, 1998.

Turk, Ruth, Charlie Chaplin: From Tears to Laughter , Minneapolis, 1999.

Kimber, John, The Art of Charles Chaplin , Sheffield, 2000.


Articles:

Shumiatski, B., in New Masses (New York), 24 September 1935.

New York Times , 6 February 1936.

Newsweek (New York), 8 February 1936.

Variety (New York), 12 February 1936.

Greene, Graham, in Spectator (London), 14 February 1936.

Van Doren, Mark, "Charlie Chaplin," in Nation (New York), 19 February 1936.

Newhouse, Edward, "Charlie's Critics," in Partisan Review (New Brunswick, New Jersey), April 1936.

Cooke, Alistair, "Charlie Chaplin," in Atlantic Monthly (Boston), August 1939.

Eisenstein, Sergei, "Charlie the Grown Up," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1946.

Grace, Harry A., "Charlie Chaplin's Films and American Culture Patterns," in Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (Cleveland), June 1952.

Marks, Louis, in Films and Filming (London), October 1954.

Whitebait, William, in Sight and Sound (London), January-March 1955.

Hinxman, Margaret, "Interview with Chaplin," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1957.

Sarris, Andrew, in Village Voice (New York), 21 May 1964.

Téléciné (Paris), January 1972.

Lefèvre, Raymond, "Voie et revoir Les Temps modernes ," in Cinema (Paris), January 1972.

Gow, Gordon, in Films and Filming (London), April 1972.

Lyons, T. J., interview with Roland H. Totheroh, in Film Culture (New York), Spring 1972.

Robinson, David, in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1972.

Aristarco, G., "L'uomo in pericolo nei Tempi Moderni di Chaplin," in Cinema Nuovo (Turin), May-June 1972.

Denby, David, in Film Comment (New York), September-October 1972.

Amengual, Barthélemy, "Style et conscience de classe," in Positif (Paris), July-August 1973.

"Chaplin Issue" of Film und Fernsehen (Berlin), March 1978.

"Chaplin Issue" of University Film Association Journal (Houston), no. 1, 1979.

Berg, Charles, in Magill's Survey of Cinema 3 , Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1980.

Winokur, M., " Modern Times and the Comedy of Transformation," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), vol. 15, no. 4, 1987.

Abel, " Modern Times ," in Variety (New York), vol. 336, no. 3, 2 August 1989.

Papson, S., "The IBM Tramp," in Jump Cut (Berkeley), April 1990.

Troehler, M., "Der stumme Aufstand der Bilder gegen die herrschenden Toene," in Cinema (Switzerland) (Basel), no. 36, 1990.

Robinson, D., and G. Molyneaux, "The 'Script' of Modern Times ," in Cinefocus (Bloomington), vol. 2, no. 1, 1991.

Marshall, C. I., "Imitation as Imitation: The Brechtian Aspect of Chaplin's Cinema," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), no. 2, 1991.

Maxfield, James F., "The Metamorphoses of the Mother: The Heroines of Chaplin's Silent Films," in Midwest Quarterly , vol. 32, no. 2, Winter 1991.

Kuriyama, Constance Brown, "Chaplin's Impure Comedy: The Art of Survival," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), vol. 45, no. 3, Spring 1992.

Bloom, Claire, "Charles the Great: Remembering Charles Chaplin," in Vogue , vol. 182, no. 12, December 1992.

Lieberman, Evan A., "Charlie the Trickster," in Journal of Film and Video (Atlanta), vol. 46, no. 3, Fall 1994.

Woal, Michael, and Linda Kowall Woal, "Chaplin and the Comedy of Melodrama," in Journal of Film and Video (Atlanta), vol. 46, no. 3, Fall 1994.

Adorno, Theodor W., and John MacKay, "Chaplin Times Two: Comedian Charlie Chaplin," in Yale Journal of Criticism , vol. 9, no. 1, Spring 1996.

Lemaster, David J., "The Pathos of the Unconscious: Charlie Chaplin and Dreams," in Journal of Popular Film and Television (Washington, D.C.), vol. 25, no. 3, Fall 1997.

Faure, Elie, "The Art of Charlie Chaplin," in New England Review , vol. 19, no. 2, Spring 1998.

Douglas, Ann, "Charlie Chaplin: The Comedian," in Time , vol. 151, no. 22, 8 June 1998.

Doppen, Franz, " Modern Times : The Industrial Revolution and the Concept of Time," in Social Education , January-February 1999.


* * *


Charles Chaplin was the last holdout in an industry that had uncritically turned its mode of production away from the visual developments of the end of the silent period to the spoken word and the theatrical trappings which that change entailed. In 1931, two years after the end of the silent period, Chaplin directed City Lights ; five years later came Modern Times , his last film to extensively and specifically employ silent film strategies. A stylistic anachronism, the film was both a tribute to the glories of the silent period and a sociological perspective on industrialized society. If Chaplin considered sound likely to become an enslavingly mechanized aspect of movie making, he rendered that vision nonsensically by portraying himself as the factory worker forced to undergo a new approach to factory life—eating while working, using both mouth and body simultaneously. Not surprisingly, this experiment in modernization has disastrous consequences for our hero, the machine designed to feed the worker running disastrously amuck, serving food but rendering it inedible. Having been served by a machine, Charlie is later literally served to a machine. The film becomes a satire on the mechanization of thought and industry, a plea for the reinstitution of human individual values over those of industrialization and mass production.

The year of Chaplin's City Lights —1931—was also the year of À nous la liberté , René Clair's film attacking mechanized society. Both films share an assembly line scene of humorous yet socially critical implications; both directors posit a rather utopian ending in which man abandons the mechanized world for a life of individual freedom outside the urban landscape; both resist the use of dialogue as a naturalistic element of filmmaking. Although À nous la liberté contains some dialogue, the strength of the soundtrack is an operetta of sounds and music, occasional pieces of dialogue being part of that source. In Modern Times , machines, not people, are allowed voice, Chaplin using the musical soundtrack to evoke the sentimental nostalgia inherent in all of his films and ultimately to introduce us to the tramp's heretofore unheard voice, when, near the end of the film, he finds employment as a singing waiter. In this scene Chaplin defies the law of naturalism by singing a lyric totally in gibberish, preferring to detail the song's narrative through the brilliance of his pantomime. Here he recapitulates his belief that actions speak louder than words by rendering the words superfluous.

When Modern Times was released, Tobis, the company that controlled the rights to À nous la liberté , brought suit against Chaplin for his "borrowing" from Clair. The suit, however, was never brought to court because of Clair's refusal to sanction the action: Clair claimed that he had been greatly inspired by Chaplin, and that if that director had been inspired by him in return, he was greatly honored. Critics of the day generally noted the similarities between the two films but rarely to the detriment of either.

The staple Chaplin narrative involved a struggle, and in Modern Times the tramp is shown encountering the modern urban landscape with its overabundance of menacing institutions. He assumes a variety of occupations from nightwatchman to singing waiter, from worker on the assembly line to worker at a shipyard. Each time his employment is short-lived, not because Charlie is incapable but because his human qualities interfere with the system. In the factory, the monotony of his job as a bolt tightener reduces him to a machine off the job—he is unable to stop fulfilling his mechanized duties, continuing to tighten everything in sight: noses, waterplugs, buttons, etc. This problem takes him to a hospital where, after recovering, he returns to the streets. There, picking up a red warning flag which has fallen off a truck, he unwittingly becomes the front man in a parade of radicals, his carrying of the flag landing him in jail. He unwittingly thwarts a jailbreak for which he is rewarded first with more luxurious quarters, then to his dismay, with an honorable discharge. Back in the work force, he gets a job at a shipyard, only to be fired when he accidently and prematurely launches a new ship. Continuing along the path where good intentions misfire, he meets the gamine. He witnesses her act of thievery, realizes that it is provoked by hunger, and attempts to take the rap. Unfortunately, an eye witness thwarts Charlie's intentions, and the girl is taken away. Incensed, he goes about purposely committing a crime: he enters a restaurant and, after eating a large meal and smoking the best cigars, admits to having no money to pay. Gamine and tramp meet through their mutual arrests and escape together to the (dis)comfort of her waterfront shack, the location of which allows Chaplin some of his most elegant balletics, notably his dive into two feet of water in an attempt to cleanse himself.

Once again Charlie attempts to integrate himself into the modern system, this time by taking a job as a nightwatchman in a department store. Misplaced confidence in some friendly burglars ends in his being sent back to prison. When he is released, the gamine is waiting and takes him to his next job, that of a singing waiter. No sooner does he enjoy some success at this job than a juvenile court officer comes looking for the gamine. Deciding to forsake this entertainment industry job, he and the girl go arm in arm into the sunset, unemployed but happy. Optimism infuses this final image, but as always, pessimism has been firmly situated throughout: his aesthetic rejection of cinematic advances, his moral rejection of industrialization.

This last scene, the indestructible tramp walking into the sunset empty of hand but full of heart, is but one of many references in this film to Chaplin's silent comedies. In the factory he converts the moment of despair into one of humor, notably when the feeding machine goes beserk, and by so doing refers to the slapstick comedy of the teens when food was used as an arsenal rather than as goods for consumption. In the parade scene he reinterprets the meaning of an object—the flag's being transformed from a warning of danger to a symbol of freedom from incarceration; in the toy store he reinvents his roller skating scene from The Rink (1916); in the restaurant he recreates his Gold Rush dinner scene, changing the food from sustenance for the stomach to sustenance for the spirit by using the duck first as a football then a chandelier ornament rife with delight rather than calories. Throughout the film Chaplin continues to assert his belief that actions speak louder than words, that the dictum "don't bite the hand that feeds you" is fallacious, that optimism must prevail despite omnipresent pessimism and adversity, and that one must continue to uphold the values that have served him well in the past. The reappearance of Chester Conklin and other silent film players in this film further strengthens Chaplin's ode to the past and past values.

Initially a financial failure, Modern Times has since been hailed as one of Chaplin's most eloquent social statements. Accused of embodying Red propaganda, the film was banned in Germany and Italy, and in Austria it was trimmed of the flag waving scene by incensed censors. At best a flirtation with radical politics, its real message lies in the rejection of modern urban life and the need for the reinstitution of human rather than mechanical values. With Modern Times Chaplin retained his position as spokesman for the underprivileged.

—Doug Tomlinson



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