Tuesday, March 4, 2014


(February 1936, U.S.)

I can't honestly claim that I know, appreciate or understand everything the legendary Charlie Chaplin did on screen. One thing is clear, though - the man always seemed to be there when American movie audiences needed him most, mainly during the years of the Great Depression. Laughter was never more important during those turbulent times and you could have it for no more than about twenty to twenty-five cents per ticket. Despite the fact that by 1936, movies were fully-equipped with sound, Chaplin continued, successfully I might add, on his rather stubborn course of maintaining his loyalty to the silent era. Frankly, that attitude makes my own inability to completely adapt to the modern times of the 21st Century look amateurish! Then again, perhaps Chaplin was simply mocking his own stubborn position against the modern times of motion pictures back then. Who knows.

Well, regardless of the film maker's personal motivation behind MODERN TIMES, it's a black and white classic film that provided the much-need laughter while telling a story of modern industry, humanity and the will to survive during hard times. Chaplin's iconic "Little Tramp" character struggles to survive in the modern, industrialized world of the day. The film is clearly a political comment on the desperate employment and fiscal conditions many people faced during the above-mentioned Great Depression; conditions created, in Chaplin's view, by the efficiencies of American modern industrialization. As a factory worker on a massive modern assembly line, he's subjected to performing the same physical tasks so often that it becomes embedded in his natural bodily movements, and it's meant to be very funny! As human beings, these working men are treated no better than the cattle that they are, almost reminiscent of the underground worker's misery portrayed in Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS (1927). Of course, remember, in a Chaplin film, misery and misfortune in the work place is meant to be funny. As an example, perhaps you've seen this iconic image from the film before...

Despite the harshness of employment, production is always key and the "big boss" is always watching. Particularly humorous is the proposed introduction of a modern feeding machine that can automatically feed workers food while they continue to work during the time that's meant to be the lunch hour. Of course, at Chaplin's expense, the machine goes haywire and the poor man becomes a victim of a major culinary mess. Again, don't forget, it's all funny, but the messages of the time never go unnoticed. As a result of all this hard labor, the tramp suffers a nervous breakdown and ends up in the hospital. Following the hospital, he's mistakenly arrested for being a Communist agitator. Given the hard luck he's experienced on the outside, he's more than happy to be in jail and is disappointed when he's finally released.

As much as this, or any Chaplin film for that matter, manages to focus on the harsh realities of the time, it also reminds its audience to lift its head up and experience hope. The tramp, upon being shoved back into the world's reality, meets the girl he will fall in love with (played by the beautiful Paulette Goddard) and later manages to secure a more stable and rather sane level of employment. But much like real life, the good things we experience are often only for right now. In any of the tramp's films, his good luck never lasts too long. Before we know it, he and the girl are out of work and on the street again during a time when being on the street was nearly a death sentence. But again, Chaplin's ultimate purpose was to offer hope and escape during the bad times, and the end of MODERN TIMES is no exception as he and the girl he loves go walking down the road at dawn toward a very unknown, yet hopeful, future; the same road many moviegoers were hoping to experience once they left the comfortable (yet temporary) escape of the local movie palace showing a film of Charlie Chaplin.

Favorite line or dialogue:

The Mechanical Salesman: "Good morning, my friends. This record comes to you through the Sales Talk Transcription Company, Incorporated: your speaker, the Mechanical Salesman. May I take the pleasure of introducing Mr. J. Widdecombe Billows, the inventor of the Billows Feeding Machine, a practical device which automatically feeds your men while at work? Don't stop for lunch. Be ahead of your competitor. The Billows Feeding Machine will eliminate the lunch hour, increase your production, and decrease your overhead. Allow us to point out some of the features of this wonderful machine: its beautiful, aerodynamic, streamlined body; its smoothness of action, made silent by our electro-porous metal ball bearings. Let us acquaint you with our automaton soup plate - its compressed-air blower, no breath necessary, no energy required to cool the soup. Notice the revolving plate with the automatic food pusher. Observe our counter-shaft, double-knee-action corn feeder, with its synchro-mesh transmission, which enables you to shift from high to low gear by the mere tip of the tongue. Then there is the hydro-compressed, sterilized mouth wiper: its factors of control insure against spots on the shirt front. These are but a few of the delightful features of the Billows Feeding Machine. Let us demonstrate with one of your workers, for actions speak louder than words. Remember, if you wish to keep ahead of your competitor, you cannot afford to ignore the importance of the Billows Feeding Machine."

You know, I might have worked for one or two people in my time that would have likely approved of a machine like that!

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