One of the earliest images I recall from my childhood was the iconic scene of Charlie Chaplin being force-fed by the corn-on-the-cob feeder from his 1936’s classic “Modern Times.
As funny as the scene was, there was something disquieting about it that I didn t quite understand back then. Perhaps that’s why I preferred the merry comedies of Laurel & Hardy and, later on, Roscoe “Fatty Arbuckle and Harold Llyod.
For most kids of my generation, Chaplin was a familiar name and the Tramp was as well-known as Mickey Mouse or Superman. Yet, I’ve never really seen an entire Chaplin film until late in my teens. In fact, and despite Chaplin’s persisting global reputation, few have actually seen either his full-length movies or short features.
The one startling aspect I found about Chaplin is how unpredictable and diverse his movies are. From his edgy short “The New Janitor in 1914 to his last great picture “Limelight in 1952, Chaplin took his Tramp to every possible direction, continuously pushing the boundaries of cinema along the way.
Cinematically, his genius was unequaled; his perfectionism, evolving mise-en-scene and dynamic storylines easily placed him at the top of cinema’s greatest filmmakers. Yet, at the heart of all Chaplin’s films, including “Modern Times and his controversial black comedy “Monsieur Verdoux, is the desire of a man who wanted people to love him; a man born into severe poverty to a working-class mother who was admitted to an insane asylum, leaving him and his brother in an orphanage.
His forthright sentimentality was one of his many signature trademarks, yet he never forced it upon his viewers the way Steven Spielberg, for example, always does. The streamline of delicate sentiment was an organic, inseparable element of his craft, moving viewers from all ages and educational backgrounds without manipulation. Chaplin is one of few filmmakers in history able to balance comedy and sentimentality in equal measure.
Work of a genius
“Modern Times contained all of Chaplin’s hallmarks, but in his blending of various themes – some of which he had never explored before – deconstructing the unity of his story and inventive use of sound, Chaplin created an uproarious, timeless original social comedy with a big heart and an uplifting, bittersweet ending that still resonates today.
The opening card of the film reads “‘Modern Times’. A story of industry, of individual enterprise – humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness. Chaplin wastes no time, showing an image of a flock of sheep, followed immediately by a similar shot of a large group of men, exiting an underground metro station and heading towards a large factory.
The freewheeling, rabble-rousing Tramp is now a compliant factory worker, spending hours upon hours tightening bolts. The famous scene involving the feeding gizmo occurs when a salesman attempts to sell his latest product to the factory owner, claiming that the machine will reduce lunch hours and increase productivity. The “Billows Feeding Machine, equipped with a “”sterilized mouth wiper, goes bananas, and starts shoving down pegs inside the Tramp. The manager, apathetic to the Tramp, simply dismisses the appliance, calling it “impractical.
The factory is run by watchful eyes present in every corner, including the bathrooms. Thirteen years before George Orwell began to popularize the notion of “Big Brother with “1984, Chaplin was already done with the idea.
The workload eventually takes its toll on Tramp and soon, his body starts to involuntary mimic the robotic jerking movement of his work. In another famous, and highly symbolic scene, the Tramp gets caught inside gigantic cogwheels, transformed into a mere piece of the machine.
After suffering from a nervous breakdown, the Tramp enters a psychiatric hospital and returns to his old-self.
“Modern Times has always been dubbed Chaplin’s critique of the dehumanizing impact of technology, but that’s not entirely true, because from the moment the Tramp leaves the hospital, the film turns into a love story set against the backdrop of the Great Depression.
After being mistaken for a protesting union leader and locked down in jail, the Tramp falls in love with a young poor delinquent (the lovely Paulette Godard who was married to Chaplin at the time), referred to as “A Gamin, whom he saves from imprisonment. In a series of misadventures, the pair search for work as they dream of having a small home of their own.
In “Modern Times, Chaplin began to experiment with sound, creating hilarious gags with a noisy gaseous stomach for example, which paved the way for him to enter the sound era. Sound became another device for Chaplin to toy with, yet his disdain for it was constantly highlighted throughout “Modern Times. In the first part of the film, sound is mainly restricted to the numbing humming of surveillance apparatus and machines, while human voice is only heard via mechanical devices such as videophones and radio. The time when the Tramp finally utters his first words at the musical sequence near the end, he sings in incomprehensible gibberish Italian that sounds more entertaining than anything of meaning.
“Modern Times was the last major silent film produced by Hollywood. Sound instantly took over the American film industry thanks to the enormous success of “The Jazz Singer in 1927. Chaplin resisted sound, firmly believing that the Tramp can’t speak. As the world widely embraced sound, Chaplin released his masterpiece “City Lights in 1931 to great commercial and critical success.
A Tramp for all ages
Chaplin’s critique of technology and the historical importance of “Modern Times has been discussed to death in every serious film publication in the last 65 years, and I don’t believe I could add to what’s already been written. What I do like to add though is my personal impression of one of Chaplin’s alter egos. The brilliance of Chaplin lay in making the Tramp relevant for all ages. The Tramp was always a misfit, a free-spirited soul trying to find his place in the world. The Tramp was a humble janitor, an American immigrant, a treasure hunter, a helpless father and, most of all, a forlorn lover.
In “Modern Times, he’s the everyday man, the causality of failed capitalism trying to survive the sweeping poverty. The Tramp and the Gamin are both victims of a pitiless system and of injustice.
Chaplin doesn’t airbrush reality, thus allowing the story to march towards its natural trajectory. What he does offer is pure, unfussy, simple optimism. “Modern Times boils down to the open-ended film. The Gamin, jaded from dodging the police and yearning for a steady, no rmal life, tells the Tramp; “What’s the use of trying? The Tramp replies; “Buck up – never say die. We’ll get along. “Smile! C’mon! the Tramp’s lips read, before he takes his final bow and heads with the Gamin towards the endless horizon.
In the past decade, I’ve managed to watch every film Chaplin has directed and starred. Throughout the years, I developed a certain kinship with the Tramp for many reasons. Perhaps the most alluring quality of Chaplin’s films is the sense of reassurance I felt with repeated viewings of his films.
The economic and social milieu of “Modern Times is frighteningly similar to the present world. And as ordinary folks try to cling to any accessible source of hope, for a temporary cure to the epidemic of despair, the Tramp offers the one thing that seems impossible in such times: a heartfelt, genuine smile. This is the last entry for this year’s Reel Estate, and I couldn’t have wished for a better film to with which to wrap up a year.
dominated by disasters, cruelty and tragedies. The one thing we all need to do, as Chaplin put it, is just smile.
The film will be screened next Monday, 7 pm, at the French Culture Center in Alexandria. I’ve seen it on a big screen before and I have to admit, it’s much more worthwhile watching it on a large screen with other people than at home.