I’ve seen this classic Chaplin film once before and absolutely loved it. My second time is not different at all in the slightest. Modern Times is a story about a Chaplin’s Tramp character struggling through the Great Depression, working a variety of jobs and frequently going to jail for his hijinks. He meets a orphaned older girl and they grow a rapport while they struggle to find and keep a job through the harsh times. The story is universal even today 70 years later. The film touches lightly on and satirizes the strikes against jobs and the burgeoning communistic thoughts that American society were having. Nothing is explored fully; all political points are fleeting. The film isn’t about all that. Modern Times is, at its heart, a film about hope against the odds of a increasingly dangerous society.
There are always new things to be found on second viewings. One of the big new things I noticed is the brilliant replacement of dialogue with music. I’m sure there were many times it happened before the time I saw it, but it’s incredible nonetheless. The scene I noticed this technique used was late in the film where the gambine is getting a job and she’s trying to get one for The Tramp too. The film was made after the advent of talkies, so the replacement is even more noticeable than before. It’s something beautiful because it gives us more details into the character. We know what they’re saying, so we don’t need to hear it. The music gives us a sort of context – the boss is tough, the girl is persuasive, the Tramp is nervous. Any normal dialogue-dependent cast would find difficulty with the film. But Chaplin doesn’t use a normal cast. As The Tramp, Chaplin exceeds (in his mid-40s) comedic heights I’ve never seen him dared before. The physical comedy is hilarious and there is some unexpected drama thrown in as well. As the Gambine, Paulette Goddard gives what I might consider one of my favorite female performances ever. The scene where she discovers the death of her father is absolutely heartbreaking and she shows it with horrifying despair. The little jump she makes upon seeing him breaks my heart every time.
I think this film may have one of the most wonderful original scores of all time. It’s just so colorful and bouncy. Little known fact – the famous song, “Smile” didn’t get its lyrics til almost twenty years later. It fits the film’s overall hopeful tone perfectly. A lot of people consider City Lights to be Chaplin’s masterpiece, but I prefer Modern Times a hundred times over. It lightly touches on many political meanings and gives us room to think about society while making us laugh and not give up on hope of a better day. The ending is bittersweet – they may have lost their jobs, but they are together. In the end, that’s all that really matters. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. A+