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Modern Times (1936) is a hilarious, slapstick, crack-up that satirizes the perils of the modern industrial age. Modern Times is a hopeless, depressing portrait of a world gone crazy, dangerously overdependent on mechanics and still painfully relevant today. Modern Times is one of the most romantic and touching films of all times.
This film is simply genius, arguably Chaplin's best. Charlie Chaplin wrote it. He directed it. Of course he starred in it. Did I mention that he scored it? It is very hard to pinpoint what its best attribute really is. The soundtrack is incredible, possibly the best comedic soundtrack ever created. It is filled with energetic drum rolls and cymbal crashes, trumpets and even outrageous sound effects (like two stomachs growling in chorus and the steaming and wheezing of machines). The movie was made more than nine years into the sound era, but relies minimally on speech. Chaplin plays a factory-worker who cracks under the pressure of his repetitive, assembly line job. Even after stepping away from the assembly line, the motion of tightening the bolts becomes an uncontrollable reflex. This gets out of hand when he tightens the noses of his superiors and attempts some strategically placed dress buttons. Chaplin is in and out of prison and job after hopeless job.
The sight gags of the film are memorable. Chaplin gets sucked into elaborate machinery and is yanked through its cogs. He roller skates blindfolded on a precipice. He is the guinea pig for a futuristic feeding machine that takes him hostage. My own favorite gag occurs when Chaplin is a waiter and singer. In order to secure his job, he must sing a funny song to a large and raucous crowd, but he forgets the words. On the spot, Chaplin begins to sing in suggestive made-up French, and the spectators, unable or unwilling to admit that they don't understand, go wild. Chaplin is at his best in this scene and throughout this incredible film.
Made during the Great Depression, Modern Times is not simply a great gag movie. Chaplin paints a grim picture of jobs lost and lost again, of strikes, jail, and hunger. There is a bleak shadow cast over the story, no positive change endures, a job found is always lost again, a prisoner escaped is rediscovered. Yet somehow, the delicately sweet romance between Chaplin and Paulette Goddard (his wife at the time the movie was made) as a waif who he meets and befriends, shines through the sharp, gray realism of the plot. This is not a cartoon, but a charming epic that speaks to its audience with humor and heart.
If you have seen Modern Times, go and see it again, and again. If you haven't, rent it, watch it, you'll love it.