Film 37: Modern Times


Modern Times (1936) dir. Charlie Chaplin.  USA.

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 Chariot’s championship, and that there are in the cast several players who have adorned the Chaplin films since first the little fellow kicked up his heels and scampered into our hearts. This morning there is good news: Chaplin is back again.

— Frank S. Nugent, New York Times (1936)

Abigail:  I really enjoy this film.  This feels like Chaplin at his very best.  Perhaps the fall of the silents taught the little man some humility (or perhaps the war. or aging. or the failure of a fifth?, who can keep track, marriage.) At any rate, this feels like the unhindered performance he should have been giving in his earlier films.  There is tons of artifice, that is, after all, how the little tramp interacts with the world, but in this film he seems to be fully the tramp, and not Charlie Chaplin playing the tramp.  This film also starts to tackle actual issues, as opposed to a plot contrived to fit gags in.  It feels like a precursor to his “Great Dictator” lambasting glory. Goddard is also incredibly charming, and a wonderful trampess.  The closing image of the two, forgive me, tramping into the sunset is incredibly satisfying.

Forrest:  I’ve been down on Chaplin lately.  I thought “The Gold Rush” was good but not great, I loved “The Circus,” but was really missing Keaton by the time “City Lights rolled around.  “Modern Times,” though,” was so good that it made me want to go back and rewatch the others.  It felt like, for the first time, he had something to say.  Maybe it was just a symptom of age, maybe it was the storm clouds gathering in Europe; but whatever the cause, here for the first time the Little Tramp was used not just to make us laugh and make us cry, but to make us think — to look around and re-evaluate what we saw.  The opening 20 minutes are flat out brilliant, and then, just when it looks like he might not be able to maintain that momentum, Paulette Goddard bursts onto the screen and for the first time (…in the four Chaplin films I’ve seen…) he has a true foil.  No half-baked pseudo-Dickensian flower girl, she, but a flaming, intelligent, fully-formed person.  Chaplin’s better for her, and so is the film.  The glorious last shot came too soon.

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