Saturday, February 05, 2011


Smile…though your heart is breaking

By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
In 1931, motion picture film star Charles Chaplin was undeniably the most famous celebrity on the planet, and his popularity did not wane one iota during an 18-month world tour he undertook that same year: an excursion that exposed him to the crippling economic and social conditions imposed by the Great Depression. Witnessing the Depression’s devastating effects on people in other countries infused in him an obsession to examine and explore how poverty might be eradicated. He pored though endless texts on economics and economic theory and ultimately devised an alternative system that centered on utopian idealism; a distribution of not only wealth but work, with a special emphasis on attacking the menace of unemployment. Chaplin was convinced that industrialization could actually benefit mankind provided that it be utilized in a far different fashion that maximizing a company’s profits and exploiting its workers.

Such overtly political sentiments would later get Chaplin into trouble with the likes of the House Un-American Activities Committee, who were somehow convinced that respect for an individual’s dignity and a concern that people shouldn’t go hungry made Charlie some sort of Commie. The proof was even in the pudding (so to speak): many of the comedian’s beliefs were on display in his motion picture classic Modern Times, which premiered at New York’s Rivoli Theater 75 years ago on this date. It would be his last silent film, and the final film of what film critic J. Hoberman once dubbed “the world’s most famous homeless person”: the silver screen vagabond known as the Little Tramp.

His success in motion pictures allowed Chaplin an independence few other artists enjoyed, and nowhere was that more apparent than his 1931 masterpiece City Lights — a film that disdained Hollywood’s “talking picture” revolution by steadfastly remaining silent (with the exception of sound effects and a short sequence in which the “speech” of several characters is simulated with kazoo-like sounds). Lights had been a tremendous success, but Charlie gave serious consideration to making his next release with sound — and even prepared both a script with dialogue and sound test experiments as early as 1934. He could not, however, reconcile having his famous cinematic creation speak onscreen (believing the Little Tramp would lose his universal appeal) and decided that Modern Times would be a silent film with synchronized sound effects. There are a few sound sequences in Times but they originate mostly from mechanical devices (a phonograph record, a radio, etc.); the only exception being a musical number performed by Chaplin near the film’s end…the only time the Little Tramp would be heard onscreen.

Chaplin plays the Tramp in Modern Times even though he’s identified as “a factory worker” in the film’s opening credits, and as the movie gets underway we find this worker in a precarious mental state due to the effects of his monotonous assembly line job (not to mention the fact that he is used as a guinea pig in a disastrous demonstration of a mechanized “feeding machine”). He snaps from the stress and is placed in a sanitarium for a little R&R but upon his release finds himself the guest of another institution — the county jail, because he has been arrested as an “instigator” during a demonstration (this sequence has some verisimilitude in light of Charlie’s later troubles with the U.S. government). Inside the Grey Bar Hotel, he unwittingly quells a jailbreak (thanks to a generous sampling of cocaine, a sequence that was a bit daring for its time in light of the Motion Picture Production Code) and for his “heroic” efforts is released…much to his disappointment, as he was starting to enjoy life in the joint.

While the Little Tramp is doing his boardin’ with the warden, Times’ other major character is introduced — a young girl (Paulette Goddard) referred to as “the gamin” (though with the aid of modern DVD freeze-frame technology you can see on an arrest warrant her actual name is “Ellen Peterson”) and who resorts to a little Jean Valjean-like thieving to provide food for her family, made up of two younger sisters and a father who’s out of work. Papa Gamin is later killed in a labor-related riot and when officials from the county come by to take all three sisters to an orphanage, the Gamin escapes from their clutches and strikes out on her own.

The Gamin’s and the Tramp’s paths cross when she is caught stealing a loaf of bread from a bakery wagon — but our hero confesses to her “crime” since it means returning to his comfortable jail existence. The couple meets up again in the back of a paddy wagon (an amusing sequence where the Tramp stands up and offers her his seat as if they were on a bus or streetcar) and manages to elude the specter of incarceration when the vehicle crashes en route to the jug. After imagining a life where the two of them set up house (in a purely innocent and platonic fashion, of course) the Tramp gets a job as a night watchman in a department store…but his employment there doesn’t last long before he is once again arrested; it seems that no sooner do the Tramp and the Gamin reach a point in their lives where he is gainfully employed and both are content and happy when circumstances conspire to put him behind bars time and again.

It is then up to the Gamin to find work — which she does, dancing at a café, and upon the Tramp’s release from prison she gets him a job at the same establishment as a singing waiter. During his performance he is forced to improvise singing mock French-Italian gibberish because the cuffs on which he’s written the song lyrics have been lost during his “warm-up.” His act is a hit with the customers and with the café’s manager, who offers him steady work but just as it appears that the couple’s troubles are over she is picked up by the child welfare officials she eluded earlier. The Tramp helps her escape a second time, and at the film’s conclusion the two of them, bloodied but not bowed, head off uncertainly arm-in-arm toward the horizon.

In many of the endings to Charlie Chaplin’s films the audience often finds the Little Tramp shuffling off by his lonesome to points unknown…so because Modern Times marks the final appearance of the “little fellow,” it seems only fitting that he be allowed to make his graceful exit with someone strolling by his side. This optimistic ending almost didn’t happen; Chaplin’s original plan for concluding the film found the Tramp recuperating in another sanitarium and being visited one last time by the Gamin, who had become a nun during his convalescence. This sequence was filmed (a few stills do exist) but was ultimately shelved in favor of the now-iconic shot of the two characters.

My favorite Charlie Chaplin film remains City Lights but I’ve always retained a great deal of affection for Modern Times because of its simple human message that can best be summed up by a line of dialogue from one of the characters in The Big Chill (1983): “We’re all alone out there and tomorrow we’re going out there again.” Times isn’t quite that pessimistic (since our hero is accompanied by his lady friend) but it does demonstrate how the Little Tramp determinedly survives in a world that seemingly has no place for him. Our hero and the Gamin are really the only endearing figures in a society that has become dehumanized as a result of a fast-paced, mechanized industrial age.

Another facet of Times that has stayed with me these many years is its recurring motif of hunger and food; something that recurs quite frequently in Chaplin’s work but never with the ferocity on display here. Food and the need to obtain same is so prevalent in this film that it’s almost a secondary character: the Tramp is humiliated by a machine that promises to eliminate the lunch hour; the two main characters meet when one is in search of sustenance (and the other runs up a huge bill in a cafeteria in hopes of being picked up by the police); the “burglars” who confront the Tramp in the department store aren’t really thieves at all but are “just hungry.” (At the risk of sounding facetious, I’ve often had to venture out to the kitchen in search of a snack on many occasions after revisiting this movie.)

Modern Times may come across as a bit dated since its original release — in a time when many industrial jobs have fallen by the wayside, it would probably be more fitting for Chaplin’s Tramp to suffer a nervous breakdown as a telemarketer or some other menial 9-to-5 job in the service industry — but there’s a reason why it remains one of the great comedian’s most popular films. The chemistry between Chaplin and Goddard (a relationship that not only took place in real-life but would surface again in 1940's The Great Dictator) is positively charming, and there are so many wonderful set pieces throughout the film: Chaplin roller skating in the department store, his reunion with former Keystone compadre Chester Conklin (Charlie “assists” Chester in a sequence that finds Conklin trapped in some machine works and Chaplin helping him eat his lunch), that wonderful song-and-dance routine in the café, etc. Beyond the satire and physical comedy, however, is a simple plea for retaining one’s humanity in the face of adversity — so astutely alluded to by the Tramp himself when he tells his companion: “Buck up — never say die! We’ll get along!” It’s a sentiment that prevails even in these more modern “modern times” today.

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Fabulous piece, Ivan. It's interesting to me how Chaplin never goes out of style-not just because of the way he created his art, but also in the theme you point out-the man surviving in a world that seemingly has no place for him. We're still fighting the same battles--equitable distribution of healthy food, gainful, meaningful employment...
I love both City Lights and Modern Times, but Modern Times always holds a more special place for me. Maybe it's just the hard-bitten cynic that admires its appeal to the injustices of the world more than the overt sentimentality of the other, even though it still gets me too.
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