Saturday, August 31, 2013

Stubs – Modern Times

Modern Times (1936) Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman, Stanley Sandford, Chester Conklin. Directed by Charlie Chaplin. Produced by Charlie Chaplin. Screenplay by Charlie Chaplin. Music by Charlie Chaplin Run Time: 87 minutes. U.S.  Black and White. Silent. Comedy, Drama

Seeing as we’re coming up on Labor Day on Monday, we thought it would be appropriate to review a film that deals with issues of employment, in this case Modern Times (1936), a tour de force from Charlie Chaplin. He does just about everything on the film but paint the backdrops, as he not only writes, stars, directs and produces, but he also composes the music, though this level of involvement is not unique to this film.

Charlie Chaplin is perhaps the best known figure from silent films. While Mary Pickford might have been more popular in her heyday, her legacy pales in comparison to his, in shaping the medium they both worked in. He was a contemporary of both Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, but again, he is held in higher regard than either. Chaplin’s films get treated by many as high art. I would argue that in his heyday Keaton was funnier than Chaplin, but I’m not trying to get into a cinematic rap battle between the two, which ironically would be silent. Chaplin did try to do more in his films than say Keaton, bringing not just laughter from the audience, but also pathos as well.

Chaplin came to America as part of the Fred Karno comedy troupe from his native England. He was scouted by Mack Sennett and signed to Keystone Pictures in 1913. Chaplin was 24 at the time. His first appearance in film was the short, Making a Living (1914), released in February. By May, he was directing his own films, the first being Caught in the Rain (1914). That same year, he appeared in the first full length comedy film, Tillie’s Punctured Romance, starring Marie Dressler. When his contract came up for renewal at the end of the year, Sennett balked at Chaplin’s salary demands, so Chaplin moved to Essanay Studios out of Chicago.

With Chaplin went The Tramp character, which he developed at Keystone and tweaked at Essanay to be more gentle and romantic. His production pace slowed from one film a week at Keystone to one every month or so. In all, he made 14 films for Essanay before moving on to Mutual. The issue always seemed to be money and how much the young comedian was worth.

Chaplin's iconic Tramp character. Devised at Keystone and refined over the years.
At age 26, Chaplin was making $675,000 a year. During the first year of his Mutual contract, Chaplin produced one film every four weeks. But over the last ten months of his contract, he made only four films, Easy Street, The Cure, The Immigrant and The Adventurer all in 1917. He made 12 films for Mutual before moving to First National in 1918 (ten years before the exhibitor merged with Warner Bros.).

His contract with First National allowed Chaplin to build his own studio, currently the location of Jim Henson Productions. While under contract to First National, Chaplin made some of his better known films, including A Dog’s Life (1918) and The Kid (1921), his first time to direct a feature. During this time he also formed United Artists with Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and D.W. Griffiths, but had to complete his commitment with First National before he could release films through UA.

The inmates take over the asylum as Pickford, Griffiths, Chaplin and Fairbanks form United Artists.
Finally on his own, Chaplin turned from shorts, which had been his bread and butter, to making feature length films. And his pace slowed even more. Modern Times was only Chaplin’s sixth feature film, after The Kid, A Woman of Paris (1923),  The Gold Rush (1925), The Circus (1928) and one of my personal favorites, CityLights (1931). Following this film he only made five more films, The Great Dictator (1940), Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Limelight (1952), A King in New York (1957) and A Countess from Hong Kong (1967).

The idea for the film came to Chaplin while he was touring City Lights in Europe. He saw the deplorable conditions on the continent, also affected by the Great Depression. He also had a conversation with Mahatma Gandhi, in which the Indian complained to the filmmaker about machinery being used to replace people with only consideration being profit.

In Modern Times, Chaplin plays the Tramp as a factory worker, who works on an assembly-line at the Electro Steel Co., where he tightens two bolts on a metal face plate as they move past him. The factory itself reminded me of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) with its oversized engines and treatment of workers as nothing more than cogs in a wheel. The President of the company (Allan Garcia) even watches and communicates with employees via video screens; big brother is watching. (Note: George Orwell’s 1984 wouldn’t be published for another 12 years.)

Big Brother, in the form of the President of the company, watches his workers from his office.
The job Chaplin performs is so repetitive that he can’t help but still make the motions even without the wrenches in his hand. This makes it hard to do anything, including handing a co-worker, Big Bill (Stanley Sandford), a bowl of soup at lunch.

On the assembly line at the Electro Steel Company.
When an inventor comes to Electro Steel Co. to demonstrate his Automatic Feeding Machine to the President, guess who is chosen at random as the guinea pig? The machine, which is supposed to eliminate the need for lunch breaks and allow workers to keep working, malfunctions, driving Chaplin over the edge. 

The Automatic Feeding Machine malfunctions, helping to drive Charlie over the edge.
Shortly afterward, Chaplin has a nervous breakdown. First, he follows his bolts down the assembly line into the machinery of the plant, literally into the wheels, before someone reverses the process and frees him. Chaplin wreaks havoc on the factory floor, spraying everyone with oil and randomly pulling levers, turning handles and setting dials.

Chaplin becomes one with the machinery in Modern Times.
After a stay in the hospital, where he recovers, Chaplin is let out, but quickly finds himself in trouble. When a presumably red flag falls off an extended load on the back of a truck, Chaplin picks it up and tries to wave down the driver, but to no avail. He doesn’t see or hear a union march coming up behind him. As the flag waver at the front of the procession, he is arrested as the mastermind and labeled a communist, foreshadowing Chaplin’s own troubles later.

Chaplin as Communist organizer. America would never forget.
He is still new to prison life, when at his first meal, the man next to him, a suspect cocaine smuggler, dumps his stash into the table salt before he is taken away by prison officials. Chaplin liberally salts all his food, including the bread. Inhaling the coke gives Chaplin nervous energy. (It should be noted using drugs on film was against the now enforced production code, but hey, he’s Chaplin.) He manages to get turned around when the prisoners are sent to their cells and gets locked on the outside. While looking for a guard to lock him up, he comes across a prison break, with the warden trading places with a prisoner in his cell. Chaplin manages to subdue the group and takes the gun away from the leader. Thanks cocaine.

Prison becomes cushy for Chaplin. But unbeknownst to him, a parole is arranged and Chaplin is freed. Despite a glowing letter of recommendation, Chaplin has trouble finding work. And when he does find a job, he loses it right away after he launches a half-built ship into the water where it quickly sinks. Desperate to get back into prison, he takes the blame for the Gamin (Paulette Goddard), who is caught red-handed stealing a loaf of bread. Gamin is another word for street urchin.

In a separate story, we’ve been introduced to the Gamin, the eldest of three daughters to an unemployed father. She steals bananas so her family and other poor children have something to eat. One day during a demonstration of the unemployed, her father is killed by a policeman. Authorities arrive as child services plans to take care of the three juveniles. However, when no one is looking, the Gamin escapes. She has just stolen the bread to stave off hunger.

Paulette Goddard as a street urchin. Her younger sisters are on either side.

But while Chaplin takes the blame for the girl, an eye witness insists that the police arrest the Gamin for the crime. Chaplin, however, will not be so easily deterred. He goes to a cafeteria and eats two people’s worth of food before admitting, in front of a police officer, that he can’t pay. When the policeman takes him outside to call for a Paddy wagon, Chaplin gets a cigar from the stand next door and gives candy and cigars to other street urchins, as if to pad his offenses for prison.

And lo and behold, Chaplin and the Gamin end up in the same Paddy wagon. When the Gamin tries to escape, she causes the van to swerve and gets thrown out the back, as does Chaplin and a police guard. Chaplin tells the girl to escape while the getting is good, but she beckons Chaplin to follow her, which he reluctantly does.
They end up in a middle class neighborhood and watch a man leave on his way to work with his wife encouraging him on. The two imagine themselves having their own house, with plenty to eat, including oranges off a tree and grapes right off the vine. When they find out about an opening for a night watchman at a local department store, Chaplin uses his letter of recommendation to get the job. At night, he lets the Gamin into the store, where they eat and play before he puts her to bed.

Food is plentiful in their dreams.
Downstairs, three burglars have broken in and hold Chaplin at gunpoint. But one of the burglars turns out to be Bill from Electro Steel. He explains to Chaplin that the men aren’t bad, they’re just hungry. They celebrate their reunion, but perhaps a little too much, because Chaplin is found asleep in amongst the fabric samples and bolts. He is arrested once again.

While he’s in prison, the Gamin finds a house for them, an abandoned shack at the edge of the harbor’s waterline. The house is falling apart, literally held together by good wishes and broomsticks. When the factory re-opens, Chaplin scurries to the plant and pushes his way to the front of the line of workers. He is the last man through the gate before the police shut it down. He gets a job as an assistant to an engineer (Chester Conklin), but Chaplin proves to be anything but helpful. He manages to squish the mechanic’s coat and is dismissed and arrested again by the police.

The house the Gamin finds is a fixer-upper. Chaplin's chair falls through the floor.
Meanwhile, the Gamin is discovered dancing in the streets and hired by a café proprietor (Henry Bergman) who thinks they can use her in their floor show which features singing waiters. When Chaplin gets out of prison, she takes him to get a job at the restaurant, which means he’ll have to sing, which naturally makes the silent actor and character nervous. She agrees to help, writing the words to the song on cuffs, which unfortunately come off while he dances before singing. The nonsense song he sings though is a big success and the proprietor wants to hire him.

Chaplin is a big hit with his nonsense song and dance routine.
But when the Gamin goes out to do her number, police, who have been waiting, arrest her for vagrancy and for running away from juvenile officers. She and Chaplin make a run for it, ending up together on a deserted road, where the two walk hand and hand into the sunset.
Chaplin and Goddard walk off into the sunset and with them go silent films.
Some credit the film as walking silent films into the sunset as well. This is the last silent film, coming nine years after the release of The Jazz Singer (1927). Originally intended as Chaplin’s first talkie, the director decided that if audiences heard the Tramp talking, it would lose some of its universal appeal. Instead, rather than talking, the Tramp sings and perhaps as a jab to the talkie movement, it is a nonsense song. Sound films would be all the rage from then on, until The Artist (2011), which, like Modern Times, is really more of a hybrid than a strictly silent film.

While neither Chaplin nor Goddard speak in the film, there is talking, as supplied by Allan Garcia, the company’s President. Chaplin would put off talking himself until The Great Dictator (1940) and the Tramp character does speak in that film.

The film has several very funny scenes, though one attempt at humor, over etiquette and stomach gurgling, doesn’t really work. The humor can also come from physical comedy as well. I’ve already mentioned the scene in which Chaplin goes inside the machine. But there is another that takes place at the department store. After having dinner, Chaplin and the Gamin go to the toy department, where they don skates. Chaplin tries to show off for her, by putting on a blindfold while he skates. But he doesn’t see that the railing is out and several times nearly skates off the edge until the Gamin can stop him.

Speaking of the Gamin, Chaplin plays a little fast and loose with her age. While she runs rather than be taken into custody by juvenile services, Goddard, a future Mrs. Chaplin, was 26 at the time the film was released and is mature enough in the film to establish a relationship with an older man. While the two don’t sleep together, that’s as much to do with the production code as their relationship in the movie. Chaplin is obviously trying to have things both ways, making the woman be both an innocent girl and a sexual being at the same time.

Paulette Goddard as the Gamin in Modern Times.
Goddard, who had been a fashion model, had been in films since 1929 and was even a Goldwyn Girl, however most of her appearances were uncredited. Modern Times marks her first substantial role and one of her first credited parts. Chaplin, who had an eye for the ladies, married her in 1936 and the two remained married until 1942. In the meantime, she would also appear in his film The Great Dictator (1940). Once considered as Scarlett O’Hara for Gone with the Wind (and who wasn’t?) Goddard would go on to appear in The Women (1939) and then sign on at Paramount Pictures, where she would be a major star until her career faded in the late 1940’s. She was nominated once for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Lt. Joan O’Doul in So Proudly We Hail (1943).

While Chaplin is credited with composing the music, in reality he would hum tunes to composer David Raskin and tell him to take the music down and then create a score from those. Chaplin was a violinist, but knew nothing about orchestration or synchronizing sound to the pictures. It should be noted that the theme that plays throughout would later have lyrics added to it by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons and become “Smile”, which was recorded by Nat “King” Cole in 1954. The song was also covered by Lita Roza and Petula Clark in the UK. Even Michael Jackson recorded a version for his HIStory: Past, Present and Future Book 1 album in 1995.

The film at times seems somewhat disjointed, as if set pieces were mushed together to make a movie, which seems to be how Chaplin worked, always waiting for inspiration before continuing. The character gets arrested so many times that the intention seems to be to transition from one idea to the next. You could have a drinking game, taking a shot every time he ends up in a Paddy Wagon. (You’d be pretty drunk if you did.)

But the film is still a film by a genius filmmaker, which is both funny and sentimental. While it is successful on both counts, some of the sentimentality may not come across as well to a modern audience. Still, just about every Chaplin film is worth watching and Modern Times is no exception to that rule.

No comments:

Post a Comment