Release Date: 5 February 1936
Written & Directed by Charlie Chaplin
Duration: 87 minutes
With: Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman, Tiny Sandford, Chester Conklin
Story: Now an assembly line factory worker, the Tramp gets caught up in a workers’ demonstration and falls for a barefoot waif…
Production: For many, Modern Times is the final film appearance of the original Tramp figure created by Charlie Chaplin way back in 1914, while others consider the Jewish barber featured in The Great Dictator (1940), although he speaks, is a close enough analogue to be considered a continuation of that same character. As with City Lights, by 1936 Chaplin had to face up to the fact that the sound film had well and truly surpassed the silent—would he finally allow his Tramp to talk? Well, kinda.
Chaplin’s travels through Europe, particularly in support of the release of City Lights, had helped enlighten him to the plight of the poor, the working folk from whom he’d originated. The ‘great depression’ had made a major impact in America and mechanisation was putting even more people out of work. The world of work was changing as factory jobs replaced rural employment, jobs were being eliminated, and there was social unrest among the workforce whose pay and conditions were being undermined. These elements would all feed into Chaplin’s next film, Modern Times.
For the first time Chaplin utilised a fully developed shooting script. Previously he’d worked from the vaguest of scenarios, developing comedy sequences as he went along, especially in his earlier knockabout shorts. As his work grew in depth and length, Chaplin found he had to become more organised in his approach to filmmaking. Although he still resisted using a full screenplay, for his most recent features—The Gold Rush, The Circus, City Lights—he’d drawn upon longer and more developed documents outlining the stories and breaking the films down into their component scenes. That didn’t mean he couldn’t alter course, and he still retained the habit of shooting many more takes than he’d ever need. Chaplin felt it was important he remain open to the possibility of finding fresh comedy in the moment.
Partly, the use of a script was prompted by lessons learned on The Circus and City Lights, especially in relation to the now very much required soundtrack. No longer would there be live accompaniment to Chaplin’s films. Instead, he created a soundtrack for Modern Times that incorporated speech, mostly from other characters than the Tramp, such as through television screens, radio broadcasts, records, and singing waiters. He didn’t allow his main characters to talk, relying as always on inter-titles to convey the narrative, a by-now rather old fashioned practice.
At the climax of the film, Chaplin’s Tramp did indeed ‘talk’ in a delightful and surprising sequence. While responding to all the calls in the media for the Tramp to finally speak, Chaplin undermined these requests by responding with a gibberish song sung by the Tramp as a singing waiter. It is a sly and clever move, and the performance itself is a delightful treat, one of the highlights of Chaplin’s entire oeuvre… yet the Tramp doesn’t actually speak in any real sense. Critic James Agee noted: ‘Half the secret of that wistful Tramp, that pilgrim of eternity … lies in the fact that he has walked the silent screen guessed at by all the world, yet never wholly revealed.’
Chaplin shot Modern Times across a ten month period beginning in October 1934. The ever reliable Henry Bergman was Chaplin’s assistant director on this project, joined by vaudeville veteran Carter De Haven (who later acted in The Great Dictator). The factory set where the classic production line sequence takes placed cost an estimated $14,000 to construct, while a further $11,000 was spent upon building three streets on the San Pedro waterfront (where Chaplin had filmed some of A Busy Day. Up to 400 people (with many bussed in to the Chaplin studio) were used in the cafe scenes that make up the climax of the film and for the opening crowd shot.
During his travels in the early-1930s, Charlie Chaplin visited Switzerland, little realising than in just under 25 years it would become his permanent home. His first impressions didn’t suggest the country might be where he would eventually settle after exile from the US in the middle-1950s. ‘I have never been intrigued by Switzerland,’ wrote Chaplin in his account of his travels, A Comedian Sees the World. ‘Personally, I dislike all mountainous country. I feel hemmed in and isolated from the rest of the world.’ A trip around the Far East in the company of his brother, Sydney, followed.
Chaplin met Paulette Goddard, then doing mere bit parts for comedy producer Hal Roach, shortly after his return to the US when he was invited to spend some time aboard Joseph Schenck’s yacht. Goddard had been born Marion Levy in New York in 1910 (she often claimed a birth year of 1915, however), was a child fashion model and stage performer before becoming a teenaged Ziegfeld girl in the late-1920s. Her stage work brought her to Hollywood, where she played bit parts in a handful of Roach’s Laurel and Hardy shorts (she can be spotted in 1929’s Berth Marks and 1932’s Pack Up Your Troubles). She’d been briefly married for two years from 1927, and had won a $375,000 divorce settlement. She continued appearing in minor films during the early-1930s, but all her roles were uncredited.
Chaplin and Goddard quickly struck up a relationship beginning in 1932, despite their 22 year age difference (she was just 22—although significantly older than most of Chaplin’s partners—and he was 44. Peter Ackroyd suggests that Goddard initially told Chaplin she was only aged 17). Chaplin found in Goddard a woman who could match him in wit and intelligence, something lacking in his previous liaisons. He bought out her contract with Roach and began to give Goddard intensive acting lessons. Goddard also found herself playing a role in the life of Chaplin’s two young sons, Sydney and Charlie Jr. Moving into Chaplin’s mansion home, she found herself playing weekend mother to the boys, and both Chaplin children appear to have responded well to her presence in their lives. According to one of Chaplin’s biographers, even Chaplin’s previous wife Lita Grey liked Paulette Goddard, describing her as ‘utterly without affectation or guile’. Chaplin saw in Goddard’s seemingly gamine naivety a possible partner for his Little Tramp figure, a female compliment to his wandering seeker.
The opening title card of Modern Times describes the film about to unfold as a ‘story of industry, of individual enterprise—humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness’. Chaplin’s awareness of the increasing mechanisation of the world of employment was the driving force behind the film, but he also had a personal nightmare from his childhood that he drew upon in relation to the fear of all-devouring machines. Aged just 12 in 1901, Chaplin had a temporary position working as a ‘printer’s devil’ in a printing plant where he had to tend a huge (from his diminutive youthful perspective) Wharfdale printing machine. To work the equipment, the young lad had to scale a five foot high platform and wait as his foreman sparked the machine to life. Unearthly noises emerged from the machine’s mysterious innards, as its gears ground round and its mechanical protuberances sprang into action. ‘I thought it was going to devour me,’ claimed Chaplin of the demonic device. A lot of Modern Times’ assembly line sequence and the Tramp’s tackling various machines came from that nightmare experience.
For Chaplin, Modern Times ‘started from an abstract idea, an impulse to say something about the way life was being standardised and channelised, and men turned into machines.’ Chaplin had definite feelings about the machine age. ‘Machinery should benefit mankind. It should not spell tragedy and throw it out of work,’ he said. ‘Labour-saving devices and other modern inventions were not really made for profit, but to help humanity in the pursuit of happiness.’ His aim with Modern Times was to make an amusing film about these issues, not a didactic tract that laid out his world view. ‘I am always suspicious of a picture with a message,’ he said in a 1931 interview just as he was beginning to consider the ideas that would lead to Modern Times.
Early titles for the project include the blunt likes of The Masses and Commonwealth, while Chaplin initially seems to have thought of the film as a way of conveying the economic theories he’d been developing and talking to world leaders about during his grand tour in the early-1930s. Thankfully, this concept got lost as he began to focus on what really mattered—comedy. There was such concern about Chaplin’s seeming political turn expressed in the popular press that he felt he needed to issue a statement. His new film was to be ‘a comedy picture with no endeavour to comment or satirise on social or political affairs’. That wasn’t strictly true, either, as lurking beneath the comedy, Modern Times would contain a certain degree of social and industrial satire.
With the Chaplin studio modernised to sound film standards (the formerly open air stages were finally fully enclosed and soundproofed), Chaplin was ready to begin shooting Modern Times on the specially-built factory set. Work on the film would take place between October 1934 and August 1935, with an additional huge street set (that was simply too large for the Chaplin studio to accommodate) built on four acres of rented land in Wilmington.
There is something of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) in the early factory scenes of Modern Times, with its seemingly pointless labour and all-pervasive surveillance by the boss. It was, however, this sequence’s similarity to scenes in another film that was to get Chaplin into hot water. Chaplin was sued by the French producers of Rene Clair’s A Nous la Liberte (1931) on the grounds that Modern Times had plagiarised the production line sequence. Chaplin maintained that neither he nor anyone else involved in making Modern Times at the Chaplin studio had ever seen Clair’s film. Clair himself joined the debate, noting that if Chaplin had indeed ‘borrowed’ from him and his work he was in fact honoured and flattered, not furious. After all, Clair concluded, ‘I have certainly borrowed enough from him.’ The case was quietly dropped with a settlement, but only after the conclusion of the Second World War.
Encoded within Modern Times’ theme of technology and obsolescence is a reflection of Chaplin’s growing antipathy to sound filmmaking and his own fear of redundancy. Given the new filmmaking technology, that he was largely ignoring, and the audience expectation that characters in films, including comedies, should talk, Chaplin was growing ever more fearful about his own obsolescence and that of his character of the Tramp. ‘I was obsessed by a depressing fear of being old-fashioned,’ he said. ‘Dialogue does not have a place in the sort of comedies I make … I cannot use dialogue.’ Although Chaplin shot sound tests of himself and Paulette Goddard for Modern Times, he ultimately decided to restrict the use of sound to simple sound effects, noises off, and—ultimately—to his nonsense song at the climax.
Modern Times opened on 5 February 1936 at the Rivoli Theatre in New York, five years after the release of City Lights. The New York Times correspondent Frank Nugent noted Chaplin’s return to the screen after ‘an undue absence’. He highlighted the film’s social themes, but contended they didn’t dominate the picture as it contained ‘rousing, rib-tickling, gag-bestrewn jest’. Some were not as taken by the new Chaplin, however, with Upton Sinclair writing that ‘the part about the factory was very interesting, and charming, but the rest just repeats Charlie’s old material’. A criticism laid against Modern Times concerned its episodic nature and its echoes of several of Chaplin’s old shorts. There may be something to that criticism, with the roller skate and escalator sequences, as well as the presence of comedy waiters, suggest. However, another way of looking at Modern Times is that it is a justified ‘greatest hits’ package as it is the last film to feature a true representation of Chaplin’s 1914 Tramp character, so is therefore largely forgivable. The iris out at the end of Modern Times is the only time a film concludes with the Tramp walking away to further adventures with someone else—Paulette Goddard’s ‘gamine’ is still on his arm come the end of this particular story.
He and Goddard would be together until 1942, and she would feature in his next film The Great Dictator, making this one of his longest lasting relationships (second only to that with his final wife, Oona O’Neil). Immediately after the release of Modern Times, Chaplin and Goddard embarked upon a five month long around the world trip. They sailed to Honolulu in February 1936 on the SS Coolidge, and according to Chaplin they were married while in Canton. Goddard recalled: ‘We got married and travelled … Bali, Indochina, China, those sorts of places.’ There appears to be no paperwork to confirm this supposed marriage, though, and it may have simply been seen by the pair as an expedient story to tell upon their return in order to quieten some of their more vocal moralistic Hollywood critics.
Within a couple of years, however, the relationship between Chaplin and Goddard had cooled somewhat. By 1938 they were spending as much time apart as together, often due to work reasons; Goddard was now in demand and had been considered for the much coveted role of Scarlet O’Hara in the movie of Gone with the Wind (1939). She appeared in several other films at this time, perhaps most notable as one of the ensemble cast of The Women (1939) alongside such star names as Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, and Rosalind Russell and in her role opposite Bob Hope in both The Cat and the Canary (1939) and The Ghost Breakers (1940).
Chaplin, meanwhile, had revived his idea of filming a life of Napoleon, perhaps with Goddard as Josephine. He went so far as to acquire the film right to a book about Napoleon’s life and times, and developed potential scripts with both Alistair Cooke and John Strachey. He was also developing an idea he’d come up with during his travels for a story about a stowaway (revealed to be poor Russian countess) who falls in love with a rich America while travelling on a luxury liner. The film would later emerge much later as Chaplin’s final project, A Countess From Hong Kong (1967). Eventually, he and Goddard would reunite professionally and personally to make The Great Dictator (1940), but it wouldn’t last. They separated in an amicable manner, more than could be aid for Chaplin’s past romantic exploits, and were divorced (giving credence to the marriage claim) in 1942 in Mexico, with Chaplin paying what has been described as ‘a generous settlement’.
The politics of Modern Times certainly struck a chord in Nazi Germany where the film was banned outright, which was quite a contrast to the reception accorded City Lights several years before when crowds lined the snow-covered streets cheering Chaplin on. The German government, led by the new Chancellor Adolf Hitler (elected in 1933), had begun to doubt Chaplin’s ‘Aryan purity’ and so had decided not to continue the programme of re-issues of his short films. There was speculation that the case brought against Chaplin over the Rene Clair film A Nous la Liberte was a German plot to discredit the comic—the production company on the Clair film was the German outfit Tobis-Tonbild Syndikat.
According to a contemporary report in the Manchester Guardian, German satirists and clowns who imitated Chaplin’s Tramp were instructed to drop the character from their acts or face penalties. The German censor identified ‘Communist tendencies’ in Modern Times that made the film unacceptable for release in Nazi Germany. For the Daily Telegraph, the German ban on Chaplin’s film was a result of a misunderstanding thanks to the widespread belief that Chaplin was Jewish (Chaplin himself often added to the confusion over this issue). For the Daily Herald the ban was more personal, with the toothbrush moustachioed Hitler taking a dislike to Chaplin as he sported similar facial hair… Ever the Fascist lapdog, Mussolini soon followed Hitler’s lead and banned the film in Italy, even though it had previously been cleared for release. Chaplin would get his revenge on both Hitler and Mussolini with his next film, The Great Dictator (1940).
Trivia: Bizarrely, but perhaps in an effort to abide by the Hays Code, the Hollywood censorship regime that was being imposed stronger than before in the middle-1930s, Chaplin originally intended to conclude Modern Times with the gamine becoming a nun! Throughout the film she was to have been in awe of and inspired by nun figures that appear randomly. However, the finale would see her ‘inner spirit’, attired as she was throughout the picture, slip out of the nun’s body and pursue the Tramp as he leaves, alone again. As production stills show, this sequence was shot but Chaplin never edited it, having already thought better of the idea. Thankfully, that ending was abandoned in favour of the existing, more hopeful, one in which they leave together. Given his evident concern with the Hays Code, it is surprising that he managed to slip the jail ‘nose powder’ cocaine scene past the vigilant censors…
Charlie Says: ‘Hollywood was going through a change … Most of the silent screen stars had disappeared—only a few of us were left. Now that the talkies had taken hold, the charm and insouciance of Hollywood were gone. Sound technicians were renovating studios and building elaborate sound devices. Cameras the size of a room lumbered about the stage like juggernauts. … Men, geared like warriors from Mars, sat with earphones while the actors performed, with microphones hovering above them like fishing rods. It was all very complicated and depressing. How could anyone be creative with all that junk around them? I hated the whole idea of it.’—Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography (1964).
‘[I was told] a harrowing story of big industry luring healthy young men off the farms who, after four or five years at the [factory] belt system, became nervous wrecks. It was that conversation that gave me the idea for Modern Times. I used a feeding machine as a time-saving device, so that the workers could continue working during lunch time. The factory sequence itself revolved around the Tramp having a nervous breakdown. … The theme is about two nondescripts trying to get along in modern times. They are involved in the Depression, strikes, riots, and unemployment. … Before the opening of Modern Times a few columnists wrote that they had heard rumours that the picture was Communistic. … However, the liberal reviewers wrote that it was neither for nor against Communism and that metaphorically I had sat on the fence…’—Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography (1964).
Verdict: Chaplin’s finest and funniest film, Modern Times is a politically-engaged 1930s satire that doesn’t forget to deal with character and comedy. It flows from classic sequence to classic sequence: the production line, the food machine, the street demonstration, the jail ‘nose powder’, the fantasy home, the department store, the shack, and the Chester Conklin bit. Everything culminates in the Tramp’s delightful nonsense song, my absolute favourite Chaplin bit, and such a clever response to the whole should-the-Tramp-talk dilemma. It is Chaplin’s finest work, perhaps second only to The Great Dictator.
—Brian J. Robb
Next: The Great Dictator (15 October 1940)
CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION
An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the first year of blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.
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