Wednesday 19 May 2010

Modern Times (1936)

Director: Charlie Chaplin
Star: Charlie Chaplin
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

Modern Times is a flawed but fascinating anomaly in American cinema. I've come to believe that Chaplin found that in 1936 he could still make whatever he wanted but while he had much to say, even he found difficulty in saying it. Times had certainly changed and he was in serious danger of becoming an anachronism. He released this film nine full years into the sound era and five after his last film, City Lights, which in stubbornly resisting the technological advances of the medium had effectively marked a fitting close to the silent era. Modern Times speaks to technological advances specifically, so could, like the opening scene of City Lights be read as a commentary on how Chaplin saw the industry he worked in. Are the massive and impersonal machines meant to signify massive and impersonal sound movies? We don't know but if they are, we can't help but wonder what Chaplin brought to this picture that he hadn't before.

This was one of the last Chaplins I caught up with, because I'd quickly realised that a solid start to learning about the history of comedy on film is to watch Chaplin evolve from his earliest days in the business. His initial shorts for Mack Sennett's Keystone studio in 1914 are mostly terrible but understandably so. Standards were very different back then and Chaplin was in the process of redefining just what screen comedy was, well before Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and other household names of silent comedy came along. He improved with each new studio he moved to, as his budgets grew and his control with them, until mid-period classics like The Immigrant and The Kid proved that at his peak no one else could even come close to his genius. He had simply become the rulebook that everyone else followed and most were content to follow. Yet after City Lights, nobody was following any more and in fact nobody was even on the same road.

While I worked through Chaplin's work roughly chronologically, I'd seen his later key films before City Lights and Modern Times. The Great Dictator showed that he understood sound implicitly and perhaps, as he also composed his scores, better than most. With Monsieur Verdoux he was still ahead of the curve, defining black comedy on film a few years before the English mastered it and perhaps a decade before the Americans paid attention. A King in New York proved that he still had it in 1957, the humour biting and topical. All three films share highly daring material, as Chaplin railed against Hitler a year before the US abandoned neutrality to join the war, found humour in murder and attacked the communist witch hunts that had prompted his emigration to Switzerland. Modern Times ruthlessly satirises capitalism, even while the Great Depression was still impacting millions, but perhaps it doesn't feel as daring because the target is less personal.

It stands alone in cinema, not as a daring innovator but as a relic because it's a silent movie yet not a silent movie. There is a little speech but what there is only comes from mechanical objects, telling in itself given the theme, but added only to help audiences who had got out of the habit of reading a movie. There is synchronised sound but mostly we have Chaplin's own score and a few intertitles. The silent aficionados call it a mute sound film and that makes sense to me, especially as Chaplin intended to make a sound film but backed out on the idea. In the opening text to the movie Chaplin calls his film, 'a story of industry, of individual enterprise - humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness.' This sort of generalisation, building a movie around a theme rather than a plot, is something entirely out of the silent era as is the convention where the lead characters don't have names, here introduced only as 'a factory worker' and 'a gamin'.
Of course Chaplin himself is the factory worker who initially works on a mind numbing production line tightening nuts, a pair at a time, the lack of intelligence required highlighted by the opening comparison shot between a herd of sheep and a mass of workers emerging from the subway. He's employed by the Electro Steel Corp, who run a vast industrial complex full of the sort of massive machinery with indefinable purposes and abundant controls that we're used to seeing in fifties sci fi movies. We really have no clue what this factory makes, even as we watch Charlie and his colleagues churning out widgets in Section 5, whose name merely aids the mystery. The workers are forced into being as mechanical as the environment they inhabit, merely more cogs in the machine. Efficiency is God, as underlined by the president who can monitor production metrics from his desk and order his minions to alter the speed of the conveyor belts at will.

If Charlie, who represents the working class, is dehumanised by the system he works in, so is the president, who represents the ruling class. He is at once a throwback to the disconnect between classes made so apparent in Metropolis and a look forward at the connected future that would arrive decades later with computer technology and, of course, the internet. He has huge two way video screens that let him look at anyone or anywhere in the plant, the obvious privacy concerns deftly highlighted by the presence of one in the restroom, so he can order Charlie back to work when he turns a bathroom break into a smoke break. The president is a cog in the machine, just like Charlie, merely the one that regulates the efficiency of the system. The universal effect of dehumanisation within such an environment is hammered home by the introduction of a feeding machine that aims to do away with worker lunch breaks by feeding them on the job.

'Don't stop for lunch, be ahead of your competitor!' rings the sales pitch and naturally Charlie is chosen to be the guinea pig to demonstrate the machines to the president. The inevitable chaos is yet another Chaplin textbook on comedic control and timing, especially as you just know that this contraption is going to malfunction in horrible ways. It's very telling to find the president rule them out not because they're inherently inhumane, Charlie being treated worse than a slave while strapped inside the thing, but simply because they're not practical. Chaplin makes it very clear that there are only two possibilities for a worker in such an environment: to become a robot or to have a nervous breakdown. Charlie initially seems like the former, as his mechanical movements continue involuntarily even after he stops working, but becomes the latter after being literally sucked into the machine. He's spent so long with nuts he's become one.
And here we start realising why the film's title is so appropriate: the villain of the piece is nothing less than modern times generally. The dehumanising factory sends him to the hospital, after he tightens people's noses, chases women with buttons that look like nuts and sprays workers with oil while dancing a sabotage ballet. Life continues to throw him this way and that without any deliberate action on his part, even after his release. He's sent to jail, after he picks up a red flag that falls off the back of a truck and finds himself leading a communist demonstration. He stops a jailbreak even he was merely high on cocaine at the time, because a fellow prisoner hid his drugs in the salt. He's even released against his wishes. 'Can't I stay a little longer? I'm so happy here,' he tells the warden. A letter of recommendation gets him a job but he ends up launching a half built ship simply by doing what he was told. He just can't win.

The saddest and most striking thing in this film is Charlie's realisation that jail is the best place to be in these modern times, especially when he has the comfy cell with all the perks. It's as he tries to get back there that he meets his female counterpart, the gamin, a French word meaning waif or orphan and so should really be gamine. She's been blown around by the modern times too and lives on the waterfront with no mother, an unemployed and soon to be dead father and no food. She escapes as her sisters are sent to an orphanage and literally runs right into Charlie with a stolen breadstick in her hands. He can't even get arrested by confessing to her crime but can by ordering a huge meal and inviting a cop to witness his failure to pay. This is the first time he manages to make something happen for himself but circumstance still steps in, throwing him and the gamin out of the paddy wagon they're reunited in. This is still the turning point though.

Paulette Goddard plays the gamin and she's one of my biggest problems with the movie. Soon to become the third Mrs Charlie Chaplin, she was the only wife who was over 18 when they married and she's notably too old for the part, even though she was 26 to Chaplin's 47 at the time. She reminds of Mary Pickford, who couldn't escape playing juvenile waifs and runaways even in her mid thirties. She also overplays many of her scenes, as if she was trying to overcompensate for the lack of sound as many silent actors did, even though her only silent film was as an unnamed train passenger in a Laurel & Hardy short. She has none of the mastery of motion that her screen beau and future husband demonstrates throughout, and his natural ease serves only to highlight her artificiality. She was better in The Great Dictator and in other non-Chaplin films, and was talented enough to be a leading contender for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind.

My other major problem is that while there is so much genius on show in individual scenes and so much depth and metaphor to play with, it doesn't flow to me as well as Chaplin's other films. While even City Lights was a collection of gags strung together to comprise a coherent storyline, from the statue scene to the suicide scene to the boxing scene, those gags feel comfortable together there but blatant here. After Charlie is hauled back to reality from a dream sequence that surely inspired the intro to The Dick Van Dyke Show, he affirms to the gamin that, 'We'll get a home, even if I have to work for it.' Instantly there's an intertitle, 'An accident happened in a department store,' and there's the job on a plate. Later, with Charlie back in jail, the gamin starts dancing in the street for no reason except to be instantly hired as a dancer in a restaurant. She makes a bundle of money in a single week but can still be brought up on vagrancy charges.
To be fair, I find less fault each time I watch Modern Times. These flaws stood out for me on my first time through, leaving the picture disjointed and broken as anything beyond a set of very cleverly constructed gag routines. Further viewings seem to paper over the cracks, until they're more of a mild annoyance in places, perhaps mostly because I've come to understand just what's going on behind these scenes and what they represent. The ending is a great example of this, as initially I felt it was simply terrible, the film getting progressively more depressing until Chaplin apparently felt he needed to tack on a happy ending to raise the tone. I can't imagine today why I interpreted the film this way because it's a great ending, as long as you see the story as the trials and tribulations of a couple trying and failing to live by the rules and the ending as what really matters, two people smiling regardless because they have each other.

So while I still see it as a lesser film as a single story than City Lights or The Kid, it grows over viewings as a powerful commentary on its subject matter, one that remains more and more telling as time passes. Chaplin didn't have a magic telescope into the 21st century and I doubt he ever aimed that far, though I'm sure Aldous Huxley's futuristic novel Brave New World was an inspiration, having been published only a few years earlier, but there are concerns raised here that seem even more pressing today. Some are simply universal, such as the moral implications of crime as necessity for survival, even in an advanced society, something that continues to pose moral questions in the current recession in the US. The memorable scene when Charlie tries to extricate his boss from steel mill machinery only to stop for lunch because of a Pavlovian response to the lunch bell is reminiscent of techniques used by politicians and the media today.

So Modern Times has far less of a coherent story to tell than other Chaplin films but it has more to think about and come back to. Having seen The Great Dictator, City Lights and Modern Times all again recently, this may be the least of them but the most likely for me to return to. I haven't quite worked out whether I'd be coming back for the depth of the commentary or for the many gags. Maybe it's for both, such as the scenes in the department store where Charlie spends one night as a night watchman. There's depth in the unveiling of the men who shoot at him. 'We ain't burglars, we're just hungry,' they tell him, telling given that he's already brought in the gamin for food and sleep in a real bed on the sixth floor. There's joy in the stuntwork, such as the great skating scene, full of apparently insane danger though the floor looks like a cunningly painted set. There's comedy in the combination of the two, especially as he gets accidentally drunk.

The other scene that's always worth coming back to is a historical one. This is the last film to feature the little tramp, the most recognisable character of the era on the global stage, because Chaplin felt that his success stemmed from a universal appeal, something that only existed with him as a silent character. Because silent movies had no voices they could travel anywhere, with the only overhead a need to translate intertitles. If Chaplin gave the little tramp a voice, all that would vanish, and so he resisted so far that this became a mostly silent movie in 1936. However he did find a way to get round it, at least as a one time thing. Late in the film, Charlie becomes a singing waiter but the song he ends up singing remains universal because it's sung in gibberish, fashioned from a number of languages, but really told through pantomime. This single song, even more than this single film, becomes the point at which Chaplin bridges eras.

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