Directed by Charlie Chaplin
Released in 1936
The sun had already set, but a maroon warmth lingered along the horizon long enough to defy the encroaching darkness for a few precious moments. In these minutes leading up to Cornell Cinema’s outdoor screening of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times last Thursday night, the view from the Terrace of Willard Straight Hall afforded a stunning panorama of downtown Ithaca at dusk, as well as a powerful metaphor, forced though it may be, on the film’s legacy.
When Chaplin released Modern Times in 1936, silent films had run aground about seven years before (see Singin’ in the Rain or The Artist for the romanticized history). His preceding masterpiece, City Lights, resisted the “talkie” push back in 1931. Modern Times is not completely silent (more on that later), but it is set in the silent film mode Chaplin and his iconic character, The Little Tramp, pioneered. Chaplin had the money, fame and gall to return to the ghost town of silent film and not only put on a show but bring millions around the world back with him. Successful as The Tramp’s swan song was, however, the paradigm had shifted and he had to finally conform, as he did with his talkie, The Great Dictator, four years later. Modern Times survives as the last beautiful respite of a form that faded into the distance.
Chaplin told simple stories with sincerity and certainty, two qualities lost in our nebulous modern times. Like many of his other works, Modern Times propels forward on the familiar romantic comedy tracks Chaplin himself long ago put into place. Our hero, Chaplin’s Little Tramp (listed as “a factory worker” in the credits), falls for the homeless “gamine,” played by Paulette Goddard. She is an orphaned, broke yet defiant girl, and shares a resourceful mischief with The Tramp. They meet when she steals a baguette and clumsily tackles The Tramp to the ground in mid-escape. The Tramp has not a penny more to his name than her but, ever the gentleman, takes the blame for her theft. As a policeman arrests him, he grins and tips his hat to the girl, embodying gentility long lost.
There is a greater purpose to this film, however, than imparting an exemplary love story. Current viewers are likely struck with the immediacy to the images and the ideas Chaplin crafted here. Modern Times is unapologetically political, decrying the strain of industry as deleterious to physical and mental health. The conveyor belts and twirling gears where Chaplin stages some of his most memorable slapstick are instruments of indoctrination. The factory boss — fiddling with a puzzle in his oversized office — commands the bare-chested gear operator, “Section Five, speed her up!” over and over. As production accelerates to breakneck speed, the workers are stripped of any semblance of free will or dignity. Today, we criticize technology on philosophical grounds — What does it mean to be human? Does this implant change me? — but its abuse as satirized through this film is clear and corporeal.
Every scene speaks on multiple planes; comedy doubles as commentary, fantasy as criticism and so on. The Tramp’s monotonous assembly line task of screwing in bolts inspires a nervous breakdown where he turns foolishly daring (famously sliding through the factory’s gears), sexually devious (fixated on ‘screwing’ the buttons on women’s blouses) and joyously mad (wrecking the factory in a flurry of dance). His full-body spasms betray a man turning into a machine, one uncaring and ready to crash. After being subjected to the iconic “Billows Feeding Machine,” which malfunctions and flings food at his face in a still-hilarious frenzy, there is a brilliant moment later on when he sits down in a prison dining hall. As he bends under the table to fix his shoe, the chef walks by and ladles a serving of stew into his bowl. When The Tramp gets up, he looks to the ceiling for a shaft and just shrugs off the instant materialization of his food. Mechanized food dispersal is a little too plausible for him.
Modern Times obviously reflects the sentiments of the working class during The Great Depression, though Chaplin settles for an optimism absent at that time. His critique of the American Dream ends in a caustic embrace, with The Tramp’s last lines — “Buck up, never say die. We’ll get along.” — arriving when all seems lost. Chaplin, a wealthy man at the time and supported by Hollywood studios, could have come across as disingenuous in speaking to the huddled masses. Viewing the movie today through my skewed image of that era and comfortable position in today’s, I nonetheless find his picture bittersweet. As The Tramp and the girl claim a dilapidated shack by the highway their own “paradise,” there is the blatant irony in the disconnect between fantasy (he dreams earlier of them in a comfy house with a stocked kitchen) and reality. But the scene is less a joke than a touching instance of believing your own dreams.
Throughout it all, Chaplin gets away without saying a word. That is not to say he is entirely silent; the climax of the film consists of the Tramp’s famous song, sung in gibberish and expressed through pantomime. But with clever use of diegetic sound — the feeding machine’s instructions are told through a record player, the factory boss speaks through television monitors — Chaplin retains the mystery of his Tramp, which he feared would be lost if he had to speak. He appeases the audience’s expectations by subverting them at every turn.
I can speak with certainty that the magic of this film was only fully retained through Cornell Cinema’s special nighttime open-air screening. I watched it for the first time on a lazy day over the summer. The disc was The Criterion Collection Blu-ray (which the Cinema also used), yet the afternoon glare clashed with the LCD television’s projection. What a difference to watch it under the stars, surrounded by some hundred students and professors resting from their own stress and labor. The audience Cornell Cinema attracts is one of love, patience and respect. I think back to our generation’s beloved Amélie, when the eponymous protagonist looks behind her at the faces of bliss populating a movie theater. This type of cinema transcends art, propaganda or entertainment — it shoots, hits and sinks right into the soul.