“Modern Times” airs on Turner Classic Movies this month. I first saw it when it was on the Disney channel in 1982. It was one of the first silent films I had ever seen, and has become one of my favorite films of all time. I’ll try to explain why.
Modern Times is incredibly unique. It’s a movie that in many ways defies description. The film opens - well, dang, I can’t even tell you how the film opens without giving a joke away! The movie touches on many subjects, but its central theme is society and the workplace. And I don’t just mean the 1930s workplace. The problems expressed in this film are alive and well today. It’s a silent film version of “Dilbert!” It points out problems in society by making fun of them.
It begins with Charlie Chaplin working in a factory. His job is “bolt-tightener.” He tightens the bolts as they race past on the assembly line. The job doesn’t allow much time to rest - and therein lies the problem. Charlie is a human, but he’s trying to survive in a system that won’t let him be human. This is emphasized when his bosses pick him out of the crowd to test out a new invention that will feed him as he works, so that he won’t have to take a lunch break! The machine doesn’t go over too well, and it creates a great comedic scene. And it sadly points out the real reason why we don’t have such machines today. “It isn’t practical.”
Also in the cast is -sigh- the Gamin, a young woman living in poverty played by Paulette Goddard. She’s certainly part of the reason I love this movie. Like Chaplin, she’s struggling to survive in a world that sometimes seems to be against humanity. Oh, how I wish I could enter this movie and ask her out! She’s beautiful, and we’re treated to several scenes with her.
One day, as the Gamin is running away after stealing a loaf of bread, she bumps into Chaplin. Chaplin, desiring to go to prison, decides to take the blame for the crime. Now why would he want to go to prison? Well, maybe he’s decided that it can’t be any worse than his life would normally be. . .But is he doomed to spend the rest of his days alone?
The movie is “episodic” in that it is broken up into different short skits or funny scenes. You may find yourself having to endure a few lesser-funny scenes. But when you put it all together, you get something grand. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
It’s a romantic story, and yet it isn’t. It’s romantic in the sense of two people joining forces to find a better life for themselves. The emphasis is less on their romance and more on their efforts to find a “normal” life. We see them dreaming “the American dream” of a home where everything is peaceful and efficient. It’s the kind of home life that nobody ever really has or ever had. Yet they struggle to gain it, just as we all do. Later on, they do get a home. But things don’t go quite as expected. . .
Like all great films, repeated viewings of Modern Times reveal nuggets of gold. Here are some of them:
*A Mickey Mouse cameo! Watch very carefully when Charlie & the Gamin enter the toy department. (Chaplin was apparently a core inspiration for Walt Disney, and the character of Mickey Mouse is said to be at least partially based on Chaplin.)
*Read their lips. Although most of the silent dialogue is displayed with text on the screen, much of it is not! Read their lips and watch their actions, and you will come out with a renewed appreciation for the art of silent films. Watch for the scene where Charlie asks the Gamin where she got the food.
*Going to jail/the nuthouse. I’ve lost track of how many times Chaplin gets arrested in this film!
*“I’ll do it! I’ll find a home even if I have to work for it!”
*Is it just me, or is Paulette more attractive as the Gamin than she is as the dancing girl?
*Drug abuse! Chaplin gets high on drugs! No, I’m not kidding!
*Watch as the Gamin tries on the mink coat. For a moment, she sees her old rags that she is really dressed in, then covers them up with the coat again. You have to see this to appreciate the subtle acting.
*”Smile” - The lovely song written by Chaplin has been covered by a few artists, including the Lettermen. Here it is in its original form.
*Chaplin sings! His nonsense song makes more sense the more times I hear and watch it. Maybe I really am losing it.
“Modern Times” is my personal favorite of Chaplin’s films. If you never saw any other Chaplin film, you would still get a good idea of his creative genius from this one. But again, this film isn’t just about one person. Ultimately, it is about you and I and the struggles we face.
Modern Times may not be the “ultimate classic” when compared to other movies, but what it does, it does very well. Modern Times is about the struggle to survive. In many ways, the struggle is easier today. In some ways, it has not changed since the dawn of time. If we are lucky, we will find someone else who will walk with us through the struggle, and together we can be stronger than we were before. It’s also about realizing that everything, ultimately, is going to be all right. We’re going to get by, even if we don’t know exactly what will happen next. At least we are together. And we can smile.
“Modern Times” airs on Turner Classic Movies on April 15, very early in the morning. If you can, try to watch it. You just may enjoy it - hopefully as much as I do.
Some of the Modern Times images used above are courtesy of Charles Flatt and are from his fun “Flattland” blog. He’s been writing some fine articles & his posting about Modern Times features a great quote from Paulette Goddard. You can read it here:
FRIENDLY NEIGHBORHOOD COUCH POTATO: One of the great things about going insane is the interesting people you get to hang out with. Cartoonist Fred Hembeck recently shared some memories of an afternoon watching a ball game on TV with Spider-Man. It’s great fun, especially if you remember the “Gwen Stacy” or “Black Cat” days. Grab a cold one (better make it a soft drink, you‘re driving) and enjoy Fred and Spidey’s day off:
Incidentally, Spidey himself is a baseball fan. Do you remember the Electric Company skit where he battles “the Wall?” It begins with him watching a Mets game! Interestingly, he watches the game in his Spider-Man costume (with a Mets cap and a hot dog). When police officers go off duty, they usually don’t wear their uniforms. This just goes to show you how dedicated Spidey is! Always on duty! You can find this classic skit on the “Best of Electric Company volume one” DVD set.
PHANTOM OF THE ELEPHANTS: You need to be careful when you surf the web. Sometimes not everything is what it appears to be. If you had checked out the Phantom of the Opera message board in the past few days, you may have been surprised to see it turn into a message board for elephant fans. All elephants, all the time. Even a pink background. What happened? Did the site go down? No, it was just a late April Fool’s Day joke.
At least, I THINK it’s a joke. It’s kind of hard to tell. It is now a few days after April Fool’s Day, and the elephant site is still up. Dismayed phantom fans are leaving messages on the board like, “Can we have the old board back now please?” and “Reasons why this joke is not fun.”
What if I had been in a hurry, and not bothered to read the site a little more carefully? I might have deleted it from my favorites, muttering “another one bites the dust!” When jokes have the potential to confuse, we need to be careful. The joke could wind up hurting us. With this joke, the message board runs the risk of losing a few readers. People could come back years later and say, “but I thought that site went down. I checked it out one day, and it was all about elephants.”
Bottom line for webmasters: As Hawthorne said, be true, be true, be true.