Dec. 24, 2011

filmsgraded.com:
Modern Times (1936)
Grade: 93/100

Director: Charles Chaplin
Stars: Charles Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Tiny Sandford

What it's about. A satire on the machine age and hard economic times. Charles Chaplin directed, wrote, produced, composed, and starred in this silent comedy, made seven years into the "talkie" era. He is a factory assembly line worker who has a nervous breakdown and is sent to prison.

He foils a breakout and is pardoned. He meets and helps out Paulette Goddard, a beautiful grown woman playing a juvenile orphan, and they become loyal friends. They occupy a department store and a decrepit shack. Chaplin goes back to the factory but gets into more trouble. Finally, he takes a job as a singing waiter, where Goddard is employed as a dancer. But soon both are back on the street again.

How others will see it. This wonderful movie was ignored by the Academy Awards, mostly because it was a Chaplin production outside the major studios, and partly because it was a throwback silent film. Now that Chaplin is long dead and can no longer enjoy the accolades, Modern Times is universally acknowledged as a comedy masterpiece. It was added to the National Film Registry in its first year, 1989, along with Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and other locks.

At imdb.com, the film has logged a remarkable (for a silent movie from 1936) 48K votes, and has an extremely high user rating. It currently rests at #60 in the imdb.com Top 250. There are two outlier demographics, though, women under 18 and over 45. 30% of women over 45 gave the movie a 1 out of 10. Interestingly, the same group gives Chaplin's prior film, City Lights, a nearly unattainable 8.9.

The best explanation I can come up with is that many older women disapprove of Goddard's ebullient, childlike, and rebellious character. For one thing, when her younger siblings are taken to the orphanage, she fled rather than go with them and look after them. It's an easier task to admire the angelic and blind female lead in City Lights.

How I felt about it. There are messages behind the humor, of course. The factory and its rapid assembly lines, feeding machine, and monstrous machine sets are all dehumanizing features. We become the grease between the gears.

It should also be noted that the constant appearances of the police, ostensibly to enforce law and order, are also supporting the property rights of the capitalists. The irony is that while the film's message is socialist, its two leads were self-made millionaires. Goddard played extras and was a chorus line dancer at the time, but the ambitious woman was also wealthy from a lucrative divorce.

One wonders whether Chaplin would have cast Goddard if she was not his (common law or otherwise) wife at the time. But there is no question that Chaplin's discovery was bona fide. Goddard gives a fine performance in this movie, animated and energetic. Her talent, though, pales before Chaplin, who can skate, dance, and act as well as direct, produce, and compose first-class scores. One suspects he also served as editor. A one-man movie studio! No wonder the Oscars ignored him.

Modern Times demonstrates that a movie doesn't need a tight plot to be funny, a fact confirmed by W.C. Fields' features a few years later. All that is needed are situations, gags, and timing, all of which is provided in plenty by this movie.