The Tramp and the man who played him is an iconic figure of the silent era. Bigger than Keaton, Pickford, Fairbanks, or any other silent figure I have written about with adulation, Chaplin made the silent era enjoyable for me. He made it bearable while trying my hardest to grasp the whole no sound thing (Don’t let anyone fool you, it is an adjustment) with his visual manipulations in order to get a laugh. These manipulations have inspired countless comedians and entertained thousands of people including children. Modern Times was technically made outside of the silent era where sound reigned supreme, but it is still at its core a part of his silent oeuvre.
My statement above may be seen as controversial to critics that write about this period by I stand by it for a number of reasons. The first is that the only sounds you hear are the exaggerated sounds of the machines and the other inanimate objects around him. The two characters never talk, but rather mime to each other. There are title cards that are used and a score that is intricate part of the action on-screen. You only hear the Tramp talk once and by talk I mean string a bunch of nonsensical words together to form a semblance of a song. But that song doesn’t take shape from his words, but his motions that accompany them. Most importantly Chaplin’s character, the Tramp, belongs most ardently to the silent era.
Modern Times shows the Tramp as a slave to the assembly line and the factory life. Overseen by a futurist boss, the assembly line is always trying to push their workers and make them more productive. This results in the Tramp having muscle spasms so that he cannot stop tightening things even when he is not at the assembly line. This even includes a woman’s nipples. The boss is forever trying to improve things including trying out a new machine on the Tramp that would hypothetically eliminate lunch hour. This has disastrously funny results. Breaking out of the factory, the Tramp becomes an unwitting famous labor protester. For this he is jailed but kicked out the next day to find some work. Constantly on the hunt for a better situation but never able to keep anything for very long, he finds a she tramp running away from her fate of the orphanage. They set up a house for themselves and keep trying to find work to survive. Paulette Godard stars as this she tramp. She is a great foil for Chaplin and provides many comedic moments on her own. At the time Chaplin and Godard were married (it is unclear on whether or not they were officially married… this cost Godard a job later on in her career… Scarlett O’Hara) and their affection for each other is shown in the way they fumble over each other.
Modern Times is a masterpiece and a rollicking good time. Filled with iconic images (The Tramp going making his way through a sea of gears appears in this film) and gags, Modern Times stands up on repeat viewings. Oh if only I can catch this on the big screen the way it was meant to be seen. It would be awesome!