The Greatest films of all time: 25. Modern Times (1936)(USA)


It was 1936, in the midst of the great economic depression, unemployment and poverty all across the western world, particularly the United States. Chaplin after making two other great films, “Circus” in 1928 and “City Lights” in 1931, takes a break and travels Europe, where he observes not only the impact of the great depression, unemployment and poverty, but the inception of other major events. Spain was fighting for socialism and democracy, and Germany was preparing to take his lost power in the first world war back by empowering his Nazi’s party and his leader, Adolf Hitler. When Chaplin returned to Hollywood and created “Modern Times” in 1936, the civil war in Spain between the social democratic republicans who held the government for almost a year (the first such in Europe out of Russia) and the rightists or phalanges had already started. At the same time Hitler, the head of the Nazi party, the largest elected party in German’s history, targeted his nation’s economy towards war and achieved a staggering reduction in the country’s unemployment of 6 millions in 1933 to 1 million in 1936. He withdrew from the league of nations and the world disarmament conference that was created after the World War I, signed the Anglo-German Naval Agreement with Britain, ordered Goring to implement a four year plan to prepare Germany for war, and assisted the dictator Franco of Spain to defeat the socialists and republicans against a universal attack against the growth of socialism.  


Chaplin who had already shown his keen and critical eyes in observing the world in his earlier films such as “The Kid” and “The Gold Rush” through his comedy, knew that this time he needs to go farther. Before making the impossible “The Great Dictator” in 1940 and mocking Hitler right in the middle of World War II (a task that nobody else dared to do), he decided to show the world the slavery of labor by capitalism that would soon take the world to the brink of war. This warning was well achieved in “Modern Times” through laughter and tears, the unique style of Chaplin. A glance through the films made in 1930s, even the acclaimed ones such as “Grand Hotel”, “Cimarron”, “Frankenstein”, “Cavalcade”, “Scarface”, “Baby face”, Duck soup”, “42nd Street”, “L’Atlante”, “The 39 steps”, “The informer”, “The Bride of Frankenstein”, “A night at the opera”, “Top hat”, “The Great Ziegfeld”, “Camille”, “Swing time”,…one wonders what other filmmakers were doing at the gravest time of all in the modern history! No one portrayed the great depression, unemployment and poverty all over the western world and at the center in the United States of America, no one alerted the world of the inception of the second world war in Europe and burning of Spain for freedom. Obviously no one, how great they were in entertaining people, did not feel the duty and responsibility of using the film medium to enlighten and inform people of what is happening in real. Therefore this is a proof that Chaplin was not only the greatest of all in his own art of comedy, acting, directing, composing,…but the greatest in having such duty and responsibility carrying such mission single handedly on his shoulder for the rest of the world of cinema. He was the only one able to dare and to make “Modern times” and later on “The Great dictator”, and nobody could even touch him or hurt him for depiction of the dark reality, as he was Charlie and made everyone laugh even reportedly Hitler when he watched his own mockery, and made everyone cry at the same time and above all think!


Chaplin the Legend of World Cinema:

Whatever could be said and have been said about Chaplin does not yet deserve what he has done for the art of filmmaking. Federico Fellini, the great Italian director has called Chaplin “a sort of Adam, from whom we are all descended”. The great French filmmaker, Jacques Tati has said about Chaplin “Without him I would never have made a film”. René Clair, another major French director has praised Chaplin “He inspired practically every filmmaker”. Billy Wilder, the great American Filmmaker commemorated him as “Chaplin not only wrote the scripts, he directed , acted in, and composed the music scores,…Chaplin, up to the moment he started writing dialogue, was an absolutely unique genius. He was a God.” Vittorio De Sica, the maker of “The Bicycle thieves” and a great actor has called himself the successor of Chaplin and how much he was influenced by him.


Talking about a genius of all trades, Chaplin’s musical talent needs to be emphasized a bit here as the song “Smile” in “Modern Times” has over time developed its own identity aside from the film. The music of “Smile” composed by Chaplin in “Modern Times” has been put into one of the most beautiful and meaningful songs of all time, recorded by many popular artists such as Nat King Cole, Eric Clapton, Michael Bolton, Judy Garland, Diana Ross, Barbara Streisand, Tony Bennett, Lyle Lovett, etc. Chaplin composed the music of “smile” inspired by Puccini’s Tosca and for the first time John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons added the lyrics and title to it in 1954.


Chaplin developed a passion for music as a child, and taught himself to play the piano, violin, and cello. He considered the musical accompaniment of a film to be important, and from “A Woman of Paris” onwards he took an increasing interest in this area. With the advent of sound technology, Chaplin began using a synchronised orchestral soundtrack – composed by himself – for City Lights (1931). He thereafter composed the scores for all of his films, and from the late 1950s to his death, he scored all of his silent features and some of his short films.

Chaplin’s limelight release in 1973 won an Academy Award for best original score. He established his own music publishing company, and other than composing scores for his own films, he did so for some other films. Other than the popular song of “Smile”, he has left us another famous song “Eternally”, that he wrote for his film “Limelight” that has been sung by Jimmy Young, Li Xianglan, Sarah Vaughan, Roger Whittaker, and even Placido Domingo among others. In addition Chaplin developed a unique style of music for the scores of his films that later on became known as “Chaplinesque”! For example, Chaplin created “leitmotifs” meaning a recurring music theme to represent a particular character or concept, mood, emotions and actions, e.g. tramp, a blind follower girl, mechanization of humans, hustle and bustle of city life, authority and anti-authority, sadness and happiness, chase, etc. Chaplin, other than composing original scores for his films, he paraphrased other music, including classics and used them in his films, such as Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty” and Brahms’ “Hungarian Rhapsody # 5” in “The Gold rush”, Wagner’s “Prelude to Lohengrin” in the “The Great dictator”.


Modern Times: A mockery tale of Capitalism

The film starts with the description that it is a history of humans in the pursuit of happiness. Then the first scene shows a flock of sheep with a black sheep in the middle that portrays Chaplin’s character in the film, followed by a flock of factory workers going to work. While talkies were already in trend in 1930’s, Chaplin preferred to make the film silent for the last time, as perhaps he could not pass on the political/social message of the film otherwise. The only sounds in the film came out of monitors, radios and Chaplin singing gibberish.

The whole film is the story of slavery of human mass under the pressure of capitalism for over- and fast production for profit of one against the sufferings of many. The test of the “lunch machine” on Chaplin in the factory so to feed the workers lunch while still working without even a lunch break, is one of the funniest moments in the history of cinema, while an excellent portray of how far capitalism could go for the sake of profit. This may still resounds familiar to this day, when employees eat their lunches at their desks or work and have no break time!


The scene that Charlie, then the repair man get caught inside the machine is another great comic/reality scenes in movies, when man becomes a machine then he destroys the machine. The consequence of all these as we observe in our own time nowadays is nervous breakdown that happens to Charlie in the film, ending up in hospital, then the loss of job and unemployment like many others. The scene when unemployed Charlie walking on the street, picks up a red flag fallen off a truck carrying a log, then accidentally followed by a crowd of unemployed and socialist protesters, appearing as their leader, is another bitter reality of the 1930’s in US history. While the tramp spending time in jail as a communist leader, Chaplin shows us the poverty and hunger in the country among women and children, like Charles Dickens’ novels portray of London in 19th century. Such depiction of reality in a comic style is how Chaplin could capture the hearts of ordinary people all over the world long before being praised by his peers world-wide as a cinema legend.

The scene of Charlie pouring nose-powder or cocaine for salt, filled up by a criminal in jail to hide it and not getting caught by the police who were after him, is another funniest moment of the film. He becomes ecstatic and drugged and when the police officers are attacked by the drug trafficker and his aids, he jumps to the rescue of the police and becomes a hero. He is soon released out of prison and runs into a young orphan woman (Gamin, played by Paulette Goddard who later on married Chaplin) when stealing a loaf of bread. Charlie attracted to the girl, takes the charge of theft upon himself and ready to go to jail for her. After another release out of prison and now in company of Garmin, his imagination of both living in a nice house in peace, where they have their fresh milk at the door from a cow, is another scene of invention and genius.

Charlie, the trump now tries to actualize his dream by finding a job as a night watchman in a department store, where he shows his unique ballet talent in a roller dance even blindfold. Encountered with a few burglars who try to rob the store only for food as they are hungry, reminds us how capitalism can create thieves and criminals out of hungry unemployed and poor people. Finally after a few other events, Garmin was hired as a singer in a café and suggests Charlie to the owner as a waiter that does not work due to his clumsiness and naughtiness. Then when he is offered to sing and dance along, one of the best performances of Charlie in dancing and singing for the first time in a total non-sense gibberish, entertaining all in the café and on the screen, the film reaches its climatic achievement. At the end of the film, as always despite all his efforts to make a descent living, the tramp remains as always a tramp with no job, means of living or even food, but with love of a company who can spend the rest of his life with. Instead of the usual ending of his other tramp’s film, walking towards the horizon alone, here Charlie walks with Garmin, after consoling her not to cry but “smile”!


In closing remarks “Modern Times” of Charlie Chaplin as his last silent film unveiled the fallout of capitalism, not being the pursuit of happiness, but slavery of labor, misery, poverty and unemployment for the profit of one against the sufferings of all. In fact that was exactly happened and worse, as the competition of capital world wide, led all to the world war II, and a great toll for the whole humanity. This after the war continued to the division of the world to the east, west and the third world, and soon the cold war, and now to “the new world order”, and one power supremacy as president Reagan coined it. Chaplin with his another masterpiece took not comedy, but the cinema as a whole to another level.  

Now more than 80 years later, this great work one more time, will be redefined based on the following criteria:  

  1. Originality: “Modern Times” is not only original, but unique as no other film then or later targeted and mocked capitalism, made people of the world to realize what is happening as a result of the free market and showed the workers of the world, the poor and unemployed that they are understood and supported by Chaplin. Not only the subject of the story of the film, but several scenes such as getting caught inside the machine and human becoming the machine, the lunch machine, roller dance in blind fold, gibberish singing, etc. were original. Also the use of different film speed of 18-24 frames per second in different scenes was original.
  2. Technicality: The technicality of “Modern Times” is obvious in its several original scenes as discussed above, getting caught inside the machine, the lunch machine, roller dance in blind fold, gibberish singing and above all in the score of the film, specially “Smile” that later on evolved to be an independent song with lyrics, recorded by many popular singers.
  3. Impact Factor: “Modern Times” while has been directly adapted later on in some films such as Disney’s Donald Duck, the episode of “I love Lucy” and “The dick Van Dyke Show” among others, it has widely encouraged other considerate filmmakers to make similar realistic and enlightening films. Many of these films were not comedy as that style of political/realistic satire in comedy was only chaplinesque. Admission of many great filmmakers, detailed earlier here to their influence by Chaplin are obvious impact of Chaplin and his work on his peers, then and later. Outside the film industry, the film has influenced other media and people such as the French philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Maurice Merlau-Ponty who named their journal “Les Temps Modernes” after the film.
  4. Survival: “Modern Times” is watchable, enjoyable and laughable now as 80 years ago, in any part of the world, by the old and the new generation. The story of the film still stands out today, when capitalism has evolved into imperialism, still at the cost of poverty of many for the profit of a few. When the film as the first film ever was shown on a mobile cinema in one of the most remote region of Cuba, “Los Mulos” in 1967, the local farmers and their family under a starry tropical sky loved the film with laughter as much as the rest of the world did 80 years ago and later on until now.  

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