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Modern Times
Directed, written, scored and produced by Charles Chaplin with Charles Chaplin and Paulette Goddard, black and white, 87 minutes, 1936

Modern Times DVD cover

DVD cover

By Carter B. Horsley

Charles Chaplin was the greatest comedian in film history and the greatest star of silent films.

He produced and directed and starred in "Modern Times" in 1936, a film described by filmsite.org critic Tim Dirks as his "last full-length 'silent film' - although it must be noted that this is a quasi-silent film" as there are sound effects" and a bit of gibberish dialogue at the end.

In the film, Chaplin's character is his famous "tramp" who has a moustache and baggy pants and the weight of mankind on his shoulders.

The story is simple: man against the industrialized world.

The film has several classic sequences.

The first finds Chaplin on an assemblyline where his duty is to tighten bolts as they pass on a conveyor belt. In a brilliant bit of choreography, he is all angles as he flays his arms to keep pace with the conveyor belt. His syncopated routine is interrupted, however, by an itch and then a buzzing fly and he must speed up to catch up and in the ensuing chaos Chaplin discovers he cannot stop his jerky movements and starts to "tighten" the buttons on a women's trousers.

The second great sequence finds Chaplin as the guinea pig for a factory experiment in productivity: a feeding machine that permits workers not to take a lunch break and which has a food "pusher" and a "mouth wipe." The machine and Chaplin are not a happy match.

In the third and most memorable sequence, Chaplin is swallowed up by the conveyor belt and taken through its huge cogs and gears to emerge an even more energized nut-tightener in pursuit of buttons on women's clothing until he ends up in the factory's control room where he pushes switches and pulls levers and creates mayhem and is finally carted off to a psychiatric ward: "he has become a 'nut' himself," mused Mr. Dirks in his excellent review.

When released from the ward, Chaplin picks up a red flag that has fallen off a construction truck and quickly is assumed to be the leader of a Communist demonstration and before long is carted off to jail where he ingests cocaine that another convict had hidden in a salt shaker and soon stumbles onto a jail break that he thwarts with his crazed reaction to the drug. He is rewarded with his own cell and when later about to be released asks if he can stay longer because he is "so happy" there.

He is released and gets a job at a shipyard where he manages to launch a half-built ship and then runs into a gamin played by Paulette Goddard, the pixish brunette actress who was in real life his wife at the time. She has stolen a loaf of bread and is fleeing child-care authorities and is finally caught despite Chaplin's attempts to take the blame.

Chaplin then gets jailed again for ordering a large meal at a restaurant and cigars and not paying for them and meets the gamin again in the paddy wagon, which hits a bump that makes them fall out and they escape. They dream of an idyllic home in the suburbs and soon Chaplin gets a job in a department store where he makes his rounds on roller skates and encounters burglars who claim they are merely hungry and he falls asleep atop a counter. He is jailed again and when he is released several days later he is greeted by the gamin who claims she has found a "home" that he calls paradise but which is ramshackle and all but collapses on and around him.

At one point, the factory boss watches his workers on television, which is rather impressive given the date of the film.

The Tramp's misadventures never quash his optimism and eventually he walks into the sunset with his gamin, victorious over the vicissitudes.

This film is ranked 33rd in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films

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