Dancing on machines to fight the machine, Adam Hofmeister looks at what serious messages Chaplin’s classic has to tell us in a comical fashion.
Running time: 87 minutes
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard
Plot: A factory worker (Chaplin) suffers a nervous breakdown, gets mistaken for a revolutionary and arrested and then struggles to find work in the depression era. Accompanying him is ‘the girl’ who tries to rehabilitate him into work whilst on the run from the law.
I quite like that there Charlie Chaplin. I won’t go as far as to say that I am a religious devotee of his films, but I will gladly admit that his talents in physical comedy are unsurpassed. It’s never heavy belly laughs with Chaplin but there is always a huge appreciation of the craft and I never finish a film without several giggles from his impeccably timed facial tics and twitches.
However, what makes Modern Times a classic is not the comedy as such, but the powerful message it delivers: the exploitation and suffering of workers under the wheels of industrial progress. In his own words: “Machinery should benefit mankind. It should not spell tragedy and throw it out of work”. And while Modern Times may not be as cutting and brutal in its assault on injustice, as perhaps Chaplin’s attack on Hitler and Fascism in The Great Dictator is, it approaches the issue with subtlety, which makes it by far the more charming of the two to watch.
Chaplin addresses this topic by making his ‘little tramp’ character a downtrodden workaholic, hypnotically screwing bolts into an assembly line until the monotonous torture drives him to a nervous breakdown. He is then released from psychiatric help, before being mistaken for a flag waving communist at a riot and arrested. He quickly realises the comfort of prison and conspires to return but is released every time, the real world becoming too impossible to deal with. It is this endless suffering from which Chaplin’s slapstick succeeds, his point made even more resonant.
The contrast of humour and bleakness only accentuates the destructive cycle in which the poorest live; alienated from the bountiful society for which they toil, vilified by the police at every turn (almost all of the film takes place in the back of a police van) and unable to find work as a result of a criminal past. Chaplin’s message hits that note now of all times; London burns because of it.
This is not a film you should torture yourself to sit through. Modern Times flows so seamlessly between the tramp’s adventures and the collapse of society around him that it is hard to believe it was made almost 80 years ago. The cinematography is stunning in places: the final shot of the tramp and the girl walking down the highway is beautiful to behold and the set designs move between comic depictions of poverty and the inhuman coldness of industrial hell.
It is always a sign of something godly when a film as old as Modern Times can remain as bitingly relevant today as when it was first released. In context of the continued rioting, and the economic diarrhoea we are wiping off of our scalps at present, Chaplin brings the issue of an unequal and broken society to the foreground, with enough pathos and humour to make Modern Times a stunning work of art.
– Adam Hofmeister