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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 37.04%
Average: 0%
Pretty Bad: 3.7%
Total Crap: 3.7%

2 reviews, 15 user ratings

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Modern Times
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by Jay Seaver

"No longer modern, but still timely - and still very funny."
5 stars

While Harold Lloyd enthusiastically embraced the new technology of talking pictures only to find that it didn't reciprocate, and Buster Keaton similarly fell out of favor, Charlie Chaplin was still making mostly-silent films when "Modern Times" was released in 1936. Considering that both Keaton and Lloyd would have to be rediscovered in order to get their due while Chaplin's Tramp became and remained an icon, it seems to have worked for him. When this movie came out, though, he must have seemed as wary of progress as his main character. Fortunately, he still knows his way around a gag, and can balance slapstick and sentiment as well as ever.

Here, Chaplin plays a factory worker who winds up having a nervous breakdown as the president of Electro Steel orders the pace of the assembly lines accelerated beyond the limits of human endurance. When he comes out, coincidence places him at the front of a workers' protest, leading to him being jailed as a communist, although his helping the guards during an attempted escape gets him early release. Meanwhile, an orphaned gamin (Paulette Goddard) runs when separated from her sisters. The pair meet up and face the challenges of a world that is stacked against them together, although the man's earnest efforts often wind up with him in jail again.

Though originally conceived as a full talkie, Modern Times is at its heart a silent comedy, and it's as episodic as many of them; a sloppy projectionist could mix up the order of the Chaplin character's various disastrous work experiences between the night watchman gig and being a singing waiter without the story being adversely affected. Still, almost every one of those segments is a miniature classic, featuring some of cinema's funniest set pieces pulled off with flair. Chaplin was a master in having things quickly spin out of control and then get even more chaotic; the caf scene at the end is a perfect blend of Chaplin as instigator, victim, and improvisor.

It climaxes on Chaplin speaking on film for the first time, although it's a bit of a trick - it's a musical number where none of the words matter. It really is an amazing example of just how well Chaplin knew how to use film as a medium, belting out gibberish while still telling a story that anybody in the audience can understand by watching gestures and maybe picking up on something that almost sounds like a familiar word. Sound is deceptively important (and well-used) throughout the movie: Though sound effects often seem a bit out of place, that song-and-dance number wouldn't work as just dance, while Chaplin's score is always perfectly suited to the scenes it accompanies. Human speech only appears when it comes out of a speaker, emphasizing just how distanced the people speaking are from those they address, even though this new technology seems like it should be bringing them closer.

That's perhaps a theme that is still relevant seventy-five years later, and that's one of the interesting things about Chaplin in general and this movie in particular: There's something universal within them even though they are very much a product of their time. Modern Times does some things that modern movies maybe wouldn't get away with - I wonder how many of the parents who brought their kids to this screening found themselves raising their eyebrows at gags where Chaplin's character (accidentally) gets high on cocaine or the late reminder that the girl he's setting up house with is young enough for truant officers to come after her - and it also directly references the Depression when relatively few other 1930s movies would. And yet, it doesn't feel dated; there's a level of fantasy to its world that makes it easy for anyone to recognize what's going on underneath without worrying about the details.

Of course, two of the film's most valuable assets in making it relatable are its stars. Chaplin is Chaplin, and while the character described in the opening titles as "A Factory Worker" may not technically be the Little Tramp, he shares all the important characteristics: He's a mostly innocent soul but no pushover, never giving in to despair when he's down on his luck. Chaplin knows how to wring a lot of emotion out of his expressive face while stopping well short of mugging. He's complemented well by Paulette Goddard, who gives her gamine character a wild enthusiasm about everything; we can tell that this girl would be a wrecking ball if she were just a little bit more angry at the world, but Goddard always keeps the memory of how stunned her character is by the unsolicited kindness of Chaplin's in the audience's mind. It makes them a sweet pair.

By the end, both Chaplin and his character are still making their peace with the modern world. The last scene is neither defiant nor a surrender, but a promise to continue on undaunted. It's a fitting farewell to the silent era, both an acknowledgment that nothing lasts and a memorable demonstration of just how great this sort of movie could be.

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originally posted: 11/09/11 01:44:20
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User Comments

12/09/09 Josie Cotton is a goddess A great satire 5 stars
9/30/08 Terri I hougt it was good humor 4 stars
5/07/06 chienne One of my faves. 5 stars
3/14/05 Rink STILL a really good film, it will never lose its awesomeness ;) 5 stars
12/02/04 Shey it was ok, i'm not really a fan of old movies. 2 stars
6/18/04 T. Maj Chaplin still in top form here 4 stars
5/20/04 mr blista a smelly poo of a wee wee!!! 1 stars
10/29/02 Charles Tatum Funnier than anything in the theater right now 5 stars
9/09/02 Corey Miller this is a brilliant movie that never gets old...I will watch it again and again. 5 stars
7/30/02 Slash Bomdale Without the grace and emotion of his other classics, this is mostly just physical comedy 4 stars
8/30/01 Henry Ginsberg Here is a film which proves that brilliance defies time. 5 stars
9/03/00 billedward two thumbs up!!! 5 stars
8/29/00 Sid Very funny and socially relevant film - although it does grow repetitive in its final half. 4 stars
5/27/00 Vance E. Johnson Still valid today 5 stars
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  05-Feb-1936 (NR)
  DVD: 16-Nov-2010



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