Quick-Thoughts: Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936)

Charlie Chaplin Marathon Part IV of VII

Shoutout to the Karen who called out a homeless girl for stealing a loaf of bread during The Great Depression. I’m sure she‘s real proud of herself for doing that…

I couldn’t possibly fathom the amount of momentary joy Modern Times must’ve gave to an audience of lost souls during its time of release. The Tramp’s adventurous freedom expressed in this defies a “Great Depression” feel, fantasizing an optimistic individual committing exciting activities in an environment of poverty-struck chaos. That opening act — funniest thing I’ve ever seen from Chaplin, by the way — was effective enough to make audiences oversee the disturbing labor abuse as something to rather chuckle at. Then somehow he managed to follow that whole sequence up with a cocaine joke which I would’ve never expected from a 1930s motion picture. They’re all great examples of using real places of pain to extract comedy out for the sake of reversing pain’s usual, gloomy side effects.

But that’s exactly what makes Modern Times a fluorescent highlight in Charlie Chaplin’s filmography: it was a creative statement of its time. It showcased the dehumanization of factory workers as they’re treated like jittery cogs who could be robotically fueled opposed to genuine citizens with singular identities. The Tramp’s constant yearn to get arrested instead of freed satirically mimics how much more troublesome the outside world was than literally prison at the time. Factory workers eating lunch as they’re casually stuck inside the unsafe mechanics of the factory work machinery; now, that should just be pretty self explanatory. Chaplin is operating with his deftest comedic premises to protrude irony in an era of a darker veil.

I guess it’s also worth mentioning that Modern Times has easily my favorite set design out of any Chaplin film thus far; from the complex gearing of the factories — the part where he gets crammed into an enormous machine is one of the most appealing shots I’ve ever seen — to the outer streets of a pre-World War and the deteriorating house Charles and his co-star seek shelter at. Speaking of co-star, Paulette Godard came off as an unusually extroverted female supporting character for the TCU (The Tramp Cinematic Universe) which vouchsafed an additional emotional latch to focus on, energizing the movie with extra enchantment. 

It may take petty crimes, clumsy job work, and a dense romanticization of one’s dreams for freedom to still reign in a land of sadness, but sometimes you just make the best out of what you’re given. And, that’s what this classic essentially boils down to: two desperate people seeking the American dream during the most unlikely time. Given the evidence, Modern Times may just be Charlie Chaplin’s most perceptive piece.

Verdict: A

The Eternal Tramp (Chaplin Ranked)

“Modern Times” is now available to stream on The Criterion Channel and HBO Max.

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