Criterion Cuts: “Modern Times”

Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.

Today’s movie is one that I’ve actually seen a number of times since discovering it in my Criterion watching, though I initially didn’t feel ready to write it up, for some silly reason thinking that picking it apart on the page would somehow change how I felt about it. I’ve since tackled enough of my genuine cinematic loves that I’m pretty sure that isn’t the case, and even if it was I’m interested in sharing some of why I adore today’s movie. So while I’ll try to keep some of the usual objectivity this column strives for, it’s impossible not to gush at least a little.

Modern Times (1936)

I feel like it’s safe to say the advent of sound in the late 20s was one of the most sweeping and instant divides in film making that ever was and likely will ever be. Nearly instantly, the entire discussion of whether or not sound was a fad or whether this would be the new paradigm for cinema were swept away by the rapid changeover, and for the most part film as a whole didn’t look back. It was expected that silent film makers would just make sound films now, and if their talents were ill suited to the demands of the technology? Well, there was always someone to take their place, eager for a chance to act or direct.

So when Charlie Chaplin directed and starred in the silent City Lights(which I wrote about previously) it was seen as a charming throwback to a rapidly disappearing era—in 1931. When he returned from a five year absence to create another feature starring his famous Tramp character, the concept of releasing a silent movie in 1936 was looked upon as a sign of lunacy, asking too much of audiences who had already changed with the times and were used to their movies talking. Chaplin, long known for his stance that the Tramp and his comic timing being married to the pantomime of silent films, was determined to give them one last reminder of the legacy that was being left behind.

Concerns about technology and how it impacts humanity are at the forefront of many of Modern Times’ most memorable gags.

What is so magical about the film that results, then, is how little heed it pays to the trappings of silent films and how aware it is of the culture into which it’s stepping into. Modern Times feels in equal measure like a throwback and a weirdly modern anachronism, presaging films that wouldn’t appear for decades yet. It’s a silent film that opens with sound, a full musical score and sound track and people talking as they march lockstep into a factory, a comic riff on the scenes of industrial slavery of a Metropolis that turns into the Tramp working a factory, subject to the whims of his employer and the increasingly mechanized work force, themes that would show up again in the 60s (!) in the work of Jacques Tati. Told mostly through chunks of set pieces that might as well be a compilation of early Chaplin one- or two-reel comedy shorts (the Tramp in a factory, the Tramp in jail, Night Watchman Tramp) it becomes a sweeping epic of the life of the downtrodden in mid-30s America, out of work and politically frustrated, angry and struggling for even small domestic dreams that they consider a natural part of living in the modern world.

The Tramp bounces from jobs to prison, sidestepping most of the worst of the social unrest of the time (even though being mistakenly identified as a labor strike leader is what got him arrested in the first place, just as how Chaplin’s own run in with mistaken identity as a Communist during the McCarthy era led to his exile from the US in the 50s). By the time he comes out, everyone seems to be out of work and out of food and out of the will to fight those facts. The Tramp tries to get himself arrested again to go back to where he has a place to sleep and food to eat, but even those sad aspirations are interrupted by fate when he crosses the path the Gamine (Paulette Goddard), a young woman who crosses his path after her own run ins with the law and becomes Chaplin’s most vibrant female lead.

Paulette Goddard manages to usurp Chaplin himself as the most charismatic person on screen, which is no small feat.

Not enough can be said about Goddard in this movie, perhaps the best of Chaplin’s leading ladies and certainly one of the only that could match Chaplin on screen in energy and expression. The Gamine is introduced to us dirty and barefoot, a knife in her teeth around a big grin as she pulls food from a crate, stealing to simply eat. It’s no surprise that Chaplin was in a relationship with her at the time, and this is one of those instances where that relationship translates into real magic on screen. He’s in love with her, and his direction makes us love her, the rare alchemy that only great directors achieve through happy accident.

The family she returns home to—an old father and child siblings that she struggles to feed by dodging the law—is torn apart when her father is killed in the street and her brothers and sisters are taken by the state. The Gamine flees, only to run into the Tramp, the two of them meeting on the street and in a paddy wagon after they’re both arrested for theft of food. A lucky crash of the wagon later, and the two are hopelessly bound together, escaping the police and sharing their same dream of making something better of themselves and living the normal, suburban middle class life that seems all-too-natural and ultimately so impossible from where they sit on the side of a dusty road.

This dumb boat gag where The Tramp accidentally shoves a half-finished boat out to sea is not only an incredible compositing effect, but still sends me into fits of laughter.

The two of them proceed to try to find jobs to get the money to live happily together, but an array of comic mishaps crush every opportunity. The Tramp becomes a night watchman, only to have burglars come into the store desperate for some food. The Tramp gives it to them, at the cost of his job. He heads back into factory work, only to get wrapped up in another labor strike and end up back in jail. The Gamine has better luck, starting by dancing on the street for money and getting a job in a cafe as a dancer and singer. By the time the Tramp gets out, she’s starting to make her way in the world, cleaned up and looking fashionable when she picks him up from the jail. She can get him a job, she tells him, so long as he plays along. They head to the cafe, where he lies about being able to sing and dance, and gets a shot so long as he sticks around and waits tables.

This leads to perhaps the defining moment in the movie (moreso even than the early factory sequence, though the image of the Tramp caught in the gears of the giant machine is undoubtedly the most enduring single shot of Chaplin’s entire history) in which the Tramp is scheduled to sing. Worried, ironically, about forgetting the words (which he has never spoken) to the song, the Gamine writes the words on his cuff, which in his rush to get out onto the stage he immediately loses. The Tramp, dancing to try to mask his panic, looks over at the Gamine. “Sing,” she says through a title card, “never mind the words.” The Tramp, making up imaginary foreign words to the song, then finally breaks Chaplin’s long-standing Tramp taboo by launching him into a nonsense song-and-dance routine.

When the Tramp rushes out after the song to give a bow, it’s not just to the people in the cafe but to us, the audience. After countless films, most of which endure today, the Tramp has finally given audiences what they want and said something. It might have been on Chaplin’s own terms, but Chaplin was right about one thing: once the Tramp spoke, the magic was over. This would be the last film with the Tramp that Chaplin made, and when shortly after the song and dance number policemen find the Gamine and try to take her in for escaping the police earlier on, the two of them flee not only the restaurant but the city as a whole. Together, with nothing to their name, they walk down the highway off into the wilderness of history, never to be heard from again.

It’s as elegant a farewell as Chaplin could give, loving in its treatment of the Tramp and what he represented, an earlier mode of storytelling that was all broad gestures and lighthearted gags that represented something more, a social consciousness that was profound in its surface innocence and the lengths to which it painted the foibles and petty, institutional evils of the world that hapless hero found himself bumbling through. The character was, as he so often found in the movie, replaced by the rush of life that happened around him, too timeless to die but too outdated to flourish. In the end, there’s a nobility to that inevitable tragedy, and Chaplin smartly exited his most famous creation on an indelible high note, a movie that is undoubtedly one of Chaplin’s best, and one of the most timeless, perfect movies that exists to date.

So long, Tramp. You will never be forgotten.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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