The second film in The Professor Lunsford Educational Series (after the previously reviewed It Happened One Night) is none other than Modern Times, written, produced, directed, edited by, and starring the legendary Charlie Chaplin.
Modern Times was released in 1936, and was the last of Chaplin’s films to feature “The Tramp” — a vaudeville style character that he conjured up in 1914. History has woven Chaplin so closely together with his character that if you run a Google search on Chaplin, images of The Tramp will dominate the results. By the time of the character’s final appearance in Modern Times he was a fully fleshed out representation of Chaplin’s comedic presence, entrepreneurial rebelliousness, tireless resilience, and carefree spirit.
I first became interested in Chaplin about 5 years ago after seeing the 1992 biopic starring Robert Downey Jr. That film served as a much needed time bridge of sorts to connect me with the world in which his films and characters were created. There was something about seeing him portrayed by a recognizable actor, in color, with full sound that prepared my Generation X Series Brain to make the quantum leap backwards a hundred years into the petri dish of cinematic history. The trip was well worth it. His movies are not only interesting because of their place in film history, but their comedic value is timeless and universal. If, like myself, you were weaned on Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies then you will find Chaplin’s wordless, visual humor every bit as satisfying as an early Mickey Mouse or Tom and Jerry cartoon. Moreover, as is the case with Modern Times, if you dig just a little below the surface of his meticulously delivered comedy, there is a rich layer of social commentary to discover and analyze.
If I could briefly attempt to describe The Tramp character (at least in this movie) I would say there are two things that fundamentally define him. The first is the fact that his environment is something that’s actively happening to him. While he does of course interact with other people, the main “dialogue” that’s taking place is between The Tramp and the inanimate objects that are constantly attempting to maul, maim, and kill him—or at least make his life a living Hell. And the second thing that defines him, is his superhuman ability to glide effortlessly through his environment and continually escape impending doom without really trying to do so. When something goes wrong, he just brushes it off and moves on.
In the context of Modern Times, the villainous environment takes on the guise of a greed fueled, over-automated factory line that drives the lovable Tramp insane. After a brief respite in the mental hospital he is released into the street only to be unwittingly swept up by an angry unemployment mob protesting the lack of jobs that has occurred due to factory automation. This gets him arrested as a communist, and lands him in the big house where he accidentally ingests a huge amount of cocaine (nose powder as it’s called here) that less reputable inmates hide in the salt shaker. The cocaine seems to function a lot like Popeye’s “spinach,” and gives him the power to single handedly thwart an attempted prison break, garnering the favor of the guards and warden, and earning him a speedy release. The irony is palpable. He protests his release from prison because it means he has to go back into the uncertainty of trying to find a job and foraging for food. Eventually his escapades land him back in the slammer a couple of more times, but in the process he meets a kindred spirit played by the beautiful Paulette Goddard (Chaplin’s real girlfriend at the time). The two of them learn very quickly that they have a much better chance at defeating their environment if they work together. In an immediate sense they fail to do so, but it doesn’t leave them without hope, as they set off down the open road, into the California mountains, arm in arm. They’re kind of like an early 20th century version of Adam and Eve – trying to return to the Garden after doing their time in the dark wilderness of “civilized” society.
The most interesting thing about this film, to me at least, is the subtle parable it contains about machines taking over society and eroding the safety, security, and fundamental rights of human beings. I find it amazing that Chaplin called this sort of thing 82 years ago. It’s not science fiction, but the general theme has been consistently handed down to us in literature and film ever since then. I first encountered it as a young lad through James Cameron’s first two Terminator movies. But this is also the parable of my favorite movie—The Matrix. Even though Chaplin’s malevolent automation was before the time of computers, and before the concept of artificial intelligence, the warning was the same — machines will replace us and harm us if we bow down and worship them, and give them the power to do so.
Modern Times, though generally lighthearted, does carry the weight of this warning in the midst of its warmth and charm. It’s a warning that deserves a much louder echo than we can hear in the midst of our modern times today, when we’ve already sold so much of ourselves to technology’s indifferent grasp.