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  • Gareth Crook

Modern Times (1936) - 8/10

This is now the fourth Chaplin film I’ve watched in succession. I’m aware that I’m going with the favourites in The Kid, The Gold Rush and City Lights, but still what a career. He’s The Tramp again here, this time struggling to keep up with a modern world that’s speeding up around him. It strikes me that although on the surface we think of The Tramp as the lovable fool. Where Chaplin excels is placing him in worlds that the audience recognise and can emphasise with. How would Chaplin back in 1936 imagine these films being enjoyed nearly a century later. Sure our connection to the changing world of the 30s isn’t really there, but I think in 2022 we can all still empathise with things changing around us without our control. The Tramp is a factory worker, thrust into a world of machines, electricity, productivity. He seems ill suited. The Tramp appreciates life, his calm polite energy at odds with this steel and chrome environment. He’s certainly at odds with his boss, the president of the factory (Al Ernest Garcia), who was also the millionaire’s butler in City Lights. He wants everything yesterday. Why let workers stop for lunch, when you can get a machine to feed them faster while still on the job! The Tramp, always the genuine pig expertly shows why some things are best done old school. This feels like a much more physical performance, as The Tramp loses his marbles in the industrial frenzy, literally caught in the machine. The camera moves more too though, giving this a phrenetic pace. Until it all becomes too much and The Tramp looks for a life without excitement. Without any effort though, excitement always finds him. Mistaken as a communist leader, accidentally getting high on Coke whist banged up, thwarting prison breaks. It’s not short on drama. As is often the case with Chaplin films though, the heart of it is people. Here his understanding that modernisation isn’t working well for everyone. Machines are taking jobs and the mass unemployed are being left behind. The Tramp’s affable nature puts him in situations that aren’t just funny, but allow him the chance to help those around him. He can’t help it. He’s looking out for himself too, but is just inherently programmed to do the right thing, even when it’s the wrong thing. The score, also by Chaplin as well as writing and directing is great. He understands the rhythm of the story, how each scene moves things along and how the music brings the emotion and voices to the silent characters on screen. The Tramp finds himself a partner in crime with a young homeless woman (Paulette Goddard), who’s an interesting character in herself. She’s not the stereotype of the usual female roles of the era. Shoeless and slightly bedraggled she has a wonderful unencumbered freedom to her performance and she compliments Chaplin perfectly as they dream of a different life in a department store after hours. They’re a sweet pair, happy in their version of domesticity, but the call of work is never far away, as is The Tramp’s ability to find the humour in every situation. Like helping a trapped coworker with his lunch by funnelling tea into his mouth through a chicken, brilliant! Will he find a steady job though and will The Tramp and his partner’s checkered past catch up with them? It’s certainly the busiest looking Chaplin film I’ve seen so far, but he never loses sight of the importance of character, of story arc, of keeping an audience on its toes and doing it with a delightful sense of purity.



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