Modern Times (1936)

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‘Modern Times’, directed by Charlie Chaplin in 1936, is an American (mostly) silent comedy that was made towards the end of the star’s heyday. Chaplin plays his traditional tramp character, this time employed by a factory on a production line. Throughout the film he repeatedly causes chaos, gets the sack, is arrested and then stumbles into a new job for the cycle to begin all over again. The movie is most famous for its fantasy depiction of factory machinery, the focus on the characters as a part of this machinery and the nods by Chaplin towards his own socialist views. The comedian’s timing is amazing, and the jokes all land, even though, unlike Buster Keaton whose comedy is far more spontaneous seeming, you can see the thought processes behind each gag and choreographed movement. The film is a remake of René Clair’s ‘À nous la liberté’, a movie that includes the same socialist commentary and the same focus on the dehumanising mechanics of factories, but replaces the slapstick and visual humour with character development and plot. It’s both a masterpiece and a final ovation for silent movies and for Chaplin. There is dialogue, but this adds to the Orwellian feel of the film (although it was made over ten years before ‘1984’ was written, the same issues are tackled). There is a case to be made that one subtext of the film, beyond the obvious anti-mechanisation one, is the fear of the subjugation of the traditional silent movie – Chaplin’s character: noble, innocent and demonstrative without saying a word, stands up for both worker’s rights and for the legacy of the genre that made his name.

Would I recommend it? Of course – it’s a great film. It would be interesting to watch it in a double bill with ‘À nous la liberté’ to spot the differences.

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