Friday, March 25, 2011

Modern Times

This is Make 'em Laugh Week! All this week we'll look at films by some of the greatest comedic legends in film history and talk about what makes them funny.

Modern Times
seen online via YouTube

There's a cafe in Greenwich Village that in recent weeks has taken to showing old Charlie Chaplin films. Not as events, though; they have a flat-screen TV inside and a collection of Chaplin films on DVD that they play all day. The last time I was there I sat through most of The Kid. I appeared to be the only patron in the cafe interested in the film, though I wasn't really paying attention to who else was watching.

I'd imagine that everything about Chaplin that can be said has just about been said. The fact that his films still have the ability to delight after so many generations is a testament to his skill as an entertainer and a filmmaker - at a time when the medium was still very young and full of potential. I've seen most of his greatest hits from the silent era and I've enjoyed them.

Modern Times is unique. It was made long after the silent era passed (1936, to be precise), so I expected it to be a "talkie," and in a way, it is. There are bits of spoken monologue here and there throughout the film, as well as some singing and even sound effects, ranging from police sirens to barking dogs to falling objects, but for the most part it's treated as a silent, with title cards and an ongoing score.

Indeed, every time I thought it was one thing, it turned out to be another. The steel factory in the beginning is evocative of Metropolis, to the point where I thought this was gonna be a sci-fi movie. Then I thought it would be some sort of satire on the class struggle, what with all the images of the poor and unemployed (this was made during the Depression). Then I thought it would be a love story, when Chaplin's Tramp meets the orphan girl, but they don't even so much as kiss. Their relationship is more like a chaste companionship.

As the title suggests, the film touches upon different aspects of American society as it existed in the 1930s: abject poverty, of course, but also industrialization, Communism, unionization. For all the travails Chaplin's Tramp and the orphan girl go through, they still find a reason to hope at the end, and I imagine that must have been a powerful message for Depression-era audiences.

Of course, modern times in 2011 aren't much better. Hope feels harder to cling to than ever before, and I'll admit, Chaplin's optimism in the face of despair seems a bit unrealistic to me. Yet how can you fault him for that? How can you fault him for wanting to give people a reason to believe?

This movie may sound depressing, but it's the exact opposite, because all the Chaplin hallmarks are there: the innocent bumbling through situations, the chases, the slapstick, and above all the heart. At the end, Chaplin and the girl's future remains as uncertain as it did at the outset, but you believe they'll manage somehow. And that's a hell of a feat.

By the way, did I mention that 2011 marks this film's 75th anniversary?


Previously on Make 'em Laugh Week:
The Flying Deuces
The General
Horse Feathers

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