Modern Times (1936)

Above: the Gamin (Paulette Goddard, left) and the Tramp (Charlie Chaplin, right), destitute and penniless.

After re-watching the Laurel and Hardy classic Sons of the Desert (1933) last Sunday, I've since thought I'd try out another comedy great from that era, whose films I don't think I've ever seen before: Charlie Chaplin.

So this week I watched The Great Dictator (1940), which I generally found pretty plain and uncomfortably outdated (which Chaplin himself admitted) since the 1945 discovery of the full extent of the Holocaust. Nevertheless, it is historically interesting, and contains a very powerful speech as a finale. As The Great Dictator was arguably Chaplin's last major film, I then decided to go back to where it all began, with Mabel's Strange Predicament (1914), a clever, entertaining short directed by and starring the fascinating Mabel Normand. This was the first film to be made featuring Chaplin's iconic character the Tramp (though not the first to be released - Kid Auto Races at Venice was filmed later but released earlier). And today I watched Modern Times (1936), the Little Tramp's last appearance.

Spoilers ahoy.

Modern Times is fascinating in many ways. It features the Tramp suffering a stress-induced nervous breakdown, leading a communist rally, and snorting cocaine. Despite being released almost nine years after The Jazz Singer ushered in the sound age, the film is in many respects a silent picture, outdated for the time, with only fleeting instances of recorded dialogue. Apparently Chaplin was preparing for this to be his first sound film, but in the end decided that letting the Tramp speak would ruin the character's peculiar mystery and appeal. The Tramp was also supposed to be an American, but Chaplin had a thick British accent. Subsequently, this would be the last film to feature the character. However, the audience do get to hear the Tramp in one exceptional scene towards the end of the film - although only in the form of a nonsensical gibberish song.

The film begins as a science fiction, with the Tramp performing high-pressure backbreaking work screwing nuts on an assembly line. He can't even take a cigarette break without catching the attention of the ever-watchful factory owner, who surveys his workforce through the use of Big Brother-esque screens. The assembly line ever quickens in pace, and there is a hilarious scene in which the owner tests out a "feeding machine" on Chaplin's character in the hope that it will make the lunch break obsolete. The sets here are gorgeous, featuring majestic fantastical clockwork machinery, in which the Tramp, in a deservedly iconic sequence, gets trapped. It rather reminded me of the 1933 Laurel & Hardy short Busy Bodies in which a similar thing happens to Hardy.

Eventually his repetitive stressful work gets too much for him, and the Tramp has a nervous breakdown. In probably the comedic highlight of the film he runs amok screwing everything he finds - he chases a prim-looking chubby woman down the street trying to screw the buttons on her comically large breasts. Then he's sent to a mental institution, and after being released accidentally gets involved in a communist rally (another comic highlight). He's arrested and put in prison, in which he, among other things, ingests cocaine, or "snorting powder" as the film innuendously puts it. The Tramp is in and out of prison so many times in this film I can't even be bothered to make a tally.

When the Tramp is released for the first time, he meets an orphaned homeless "gamin" (played by the beautiful and very American-looking Paulette Goddard, Chaplin's partner at the time, in her first starring role. She would later appear in The Great Dictator). Not long after this the film begins to drag, as so many comedies do, when towards the middle they take their eyes off the humour in order to focus on the "serious stuff", like plot, drama and love. Nevertheless, the romance between the two tramps is very charming.

Overall Modern Times is an unrelenting satire on the American Dream. Nowhere is this more apparent than a scene in which, after yet another close encounter with the law, the Tramp and the Gamin find themselves on the curb. They witness a husband lovingly depart his adoring housewife as he goes off to work, and the housewife blissfully skips back into the house. The Tramp and the Gamin mock them, before fantasising about what it would be like if they lived together in a home of their own like that. The fantasy sequence that follows is both satirical and charming. The Gamin is dressed with a bow in her hair like an idealised housewife. They are living in a land of plenty - the Tramp picks luscious ripe fruits from a tree growing conveniently outside the window, and notably discards a barely eaten fruit out the same window when he's done. He only needs to whistle for a big fat cow to trot outside his front door and spray plenteous milk into a glass without even the need to milk its udders. While he waits for the glass to fill up and for the Gamin to finish cooking an oversized steak, again the Tramp picks fruits - grapes this time - from a conveniently placed tree.

The sequence ingeniously both makes sense from a plot point of view - of course this is the sort of idealised vision hungry penniless American urchins would have of the American Dream - and also from a thematic point of view: as a satire of that same idealisation. The fantasy sequence ends revealing it as being the Tramp's playful fancy - happy-go-lucky as he always is, he seems to find the fantasy only merely amusing, but then the camera brilliantly pans to the left, revealing the Gamin gazing dreamily into it. Evidently the dream really means something to her - after a lifetime of destitution, the thought of the possibility of a life of plenty is enrapturing. Noticing this, the Tramp, in a characteristic spirit of charity, announces, "I'll do it! We'll get a home, even if I have to work for it". Work, of course, being a return to the same assembly line seen in all its maddening detail at the beginning of the film.

Actually, the Gamin and the Tramp very nearly achieve their dreams at the end of the picture, when they get jobs in a café as a dancer and a singing waiter respectively. However, it seems the Gamin cannot escape her past, as the police try to arrest her for her prior "vagrancy and escape from Juvenile officers". She and the Tramp have to flee the café just as he's become a hit, and return to their old life, impoverished and homeless. The Gamin breaks down crying, saying "What's the use of trying?", a phrase which perfectly represents the total opposite of the American Dream. The Tramp, happy-go-lucky as ever, an experienced vagrant (after 22 years of films' worth of vagrancy), comforts her: "Buck up - never say die. We'll get along!". He tells her to put a smile on her face, and arm in arm they walk into the distance as the music reaches a crescendo. A bittersweet, romantic ending for the film, and for the character of the Tramp, whom we are never to see again.