It is sort of odd to watch a film that was made 84 years ago that is a commentary on “Modern Times” but that’s exactly how I spent the morning.
1936’s Charlie Chaplin (mostly) silent film about an economically struggling factory worker is an interesting mix of social commentary, slapstick comedy and outright weirdness.
Chaplin plays a factory worker (like many silent films, none of the characters have names). The opening scenes are the inspiration for a later iconic I Love Lucy episode, with Chaplin struggling to keep up with work on an assembly line at a steel mill. There are multiple not-to-subtle signs of the perils of industrial work – workers seen as a sheep herd going into the factory, closed circuit TV watching their every move, an attempt to use an automatic feeder for workers to eliminate lunch breaks. Chaplin eventually has a nervous breakdown from all the repetitive work and is sent to the hospital.
After being released from the hospital, Chaplin is erroneously arrested as the suspected leader of a communist march.
Meanwhile, the other central character, “The Gamin” is introduced. I had to look up what that meant – it apparently means a poor person who walks the streets. She is played by an absolutely stunning young Paulette Goodard and is trying to care for two orphans while her out of work father struggles.
Chaplin eventually finds his way out of prison in a bizarre sequence where he accidentally salts his food with cocaine, then helps to thwart a prison break and is released by the warden for his good deed. Chaplin sadly asks if he can stay in prison since he is happier there than on the outside.
Once out, he passed The Gamin being arrested for shoplifting a loaf of bread. He tries to take the blame, seeing it as his path back to jail, but the shop owner fingers The Gamin. Chaplin then intentionally walks out on a lunch check and points it out to a cop to get arrested.
On the wagon to the prison, he is reunited with The Gamin and they wind up escaping after she causes a commotion. Chaplin gets a job as a night watchman at a department store and let’s The Gamin run all around the store with him, eating food, playing with roller skates and ultimately curling up in the bedding department. The next morning, Chaplin is discovered asleep in the women’s department and is once again arrested.
10 days later when gets out of jail, The Gamin meets him and tells him she has found a place for them to live – an old run down shack on the water. They attempt a domestic life, in spite of how run down the house is. Chaplin sees in the paper that factories are restarting and heads to town to find work.
He is hired as a mechanic’s assistant at a factory. A whole series of slap-sticky things happen, mostly consisting of him messing up and causing problems for the mechanic. Eventually they learn that the union has decided to strike. On the way out, Chaplin trips and accidentally flings a rock at a police officer and is arrested again.
When he gets out this time, The Gamin lets him know she has found work for him as a singing waiter at a restaurant. He struggles waiting tables but ad libs a song when it is his turn to sing that is well received and he is offered a full-time job. But, just then, the police catch up to The Gamin to arrest her for escaping earlier. She and Chaplin create a commotion and get away.
She is despondent, saying “what’s the use in trying?” – Chaplin assures her they will get by and the last scene is them walking down the road together.
Like a lot of films of that era, the movie is silent but has backing audio sound effects and even occasional backing audio for brief monologues. Also like a lot of silent films, it sort of has an other-worldly quality to it – the factory sets don’t quite look like factories, the city scenes don’t quite loo like a city, but the alternate reality is a lot less beautiful than in Sunrise, which I reviewed earlier.
After watching this film, I immediately Googled “was Charlie Chapin a communist” as this seemed like an obvious piece of Marxist commentary – there is the desolation and monotony of industrial work, there is the system of oppression that keeps the working class from succeeding – basically all of the things Marx wrote about. It turns out that he probably was a communist supporter but never was active in the party. The fact that he was able to get this film made in 1930s Hollywood either speaks to the influence that Chaplin had or to the obliviousness of Hollywood censors to the point Chaplin was making.
The social commentary is very strong for a film of that era – it has a real point of view and makes its case in a very humanizing way. The slapstick scenes are really funny – Chaplin was a master of sight gags. The underpinning love story is less compelling – the characters don’t connect or have chemistry in a way that is believable. And the plot ranges somewhere between disjointed and absurd. This is clearly an important film – and the social commentary about isolation and the pain of the working class seems as relevant now as it was 84 years ago. And it was an enjoyable and accessible film – something that not all pieces of social commentary achieve. And Chaplin is one heck of an actor. But there are also holes that make this a very incomplete film.
Production Quality 7/10
Rewatch Value 7/10
Total Score 31/40
Next up, we move out of the classic era into a series of more modern films, starting with 1976’s All The President’s Men.