Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Modern Times (1936) - Charles Chaplin

Stubborn little bleeder that Chaplin was. Along with a couple of the greatest directors of the silent era (Fritz Lang and René Clair), he held off of using sound in his films for as long as possible. This film was released nine years after The Jazz Singer (the benchmark for the end of the silent era), but is still essentially a silent film with added sound effects and score. There is no real dialogue, it's title cards all the way with this one, as I said stubborn sod that Chaplin. I guess you can't blame him really since sound in films back then was deemed a bit of a distraction from what was happening on the screen. Plus Chappers (as I promise I won't call him again) was a master of silent cinema. So it all makes sense really, he was just sticking to what he was best at and what he understood. However this would be the last of his silent films. Modern Times marks a more prominent last too for Chaplin, it would be the final bow for his most famous character, The Little Tramp.

Now as a lad I loved Laurel & Hardy, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton and just about any other silent celluloid comedian that was prepared to risk their life to make me laugh like a donkey, a donkey that enjoys a good laugh that is, not any other kind. All that is except Charlie Chaplin. He just didn't make me laugh, not even a titter. Stan Laurel lighting a cigarette with a flame from his thumb now that's funny, little bloke with a Hitler moustache, bendy cane and big shoes not doing much at all, was just plain boring for a wee fella like meself. Almost enough to make me want to go outside and play during the summer, almost. As I got older all those aforementioned funnymen still made me laugh, but it took until my mid twenties before I saw the light with Chaplin. I caught a couple of his films on Swedish TV and it just clicked how great he actually was, not only as an actor, but also a writer, director and even composer. The Robert Rodriguez of his day in a way, except he made genius films, none of which featured Danny Trejo.

Anyway Modern Times is like a fair few of those early slapstick films, a series of set pieces linked fairly loosely together. Kind of like four Chaplin shorts, the most famous being the first segment which see's our guy working in a factory. Now this is where the difference between watching Chaplin as a kid or as an adult (albeit a very childish adult) comes in. Since now it becomes obvious that Chaplin is knocking the idea of technology taking over lives, turning people into machines. Especially when you take into account just how bad life was for so many of the people that would flock to the cinema, in order to escape their own poverty for a few hours at this period in time in the States. It's the very same thing that Lang had touched on in Metropolis, and Jacques Tati would spend his career exploring. The factory itself owes a huge debt to René Clair's À nous la liberté. Clair states that Chaplin actually told him that he had 'borrowed' from his film, Clair found it flattering since he was a huge Chaplin fan himself.

All the silent stars were physical actors and really able to throw themselves around, Chaplin is no exception. The jailhouse sequence is great for this, but Chaplin has something that is lacking in other stars from this era, a kind of sadness maybe something that people could relate too. Seeing him use a chicken as a funnel for some coffee is both surreal and touching. I can't really describe it, it's one of those things that needs to be seen. Modern Times contains one of my favourite Charlie Chaplin moments, a flag falls off the back of a truck, the Tramp rushes forward picks it up and runs after the truck, as he does this a protest march swings round the corner and falls in behind him. On paper it doesn't sound like much, on screen it's a powerful image coupled with a humerous overtone. Which is something that happens time and time again in the film, the fantasy home sequence where grapes grow right outside the kitchen door and milk comes directly from the udder, is followed by the reality of a tumbledown shack on the edge of town. Of course the comedy is there, but there is always that undertone of sadness. Yeah so Chaplin's a genius, I can see that now. I'm hoping to see more by him this year, so watch this space.

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