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"Modern Times" (1936) - A Dystopian Industrialization Comedic Farce Directed/Produced/Written/Composed (!) by, and Starring, Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard


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None of Charlie Chaplin's films seem dated.

Chaplin's Modern Times was clearly inspired by Metropolis (1927), but took the baton and launched into a full-fledged sprint with it.

The opening scene with pigs being herded, followed by people loading onto the subway, is not exactly an exercise in subtlety.

The "Billows Feeding Machine" clearly inspired the cruel, sadistic, "Pigs is Pigs" Porky Pig cartoon (1954) where Porky had a nightmare and was force-fed by a mad scientist (any obese child my age was affected by this). This early scene symbolizes the entire assembly-line scenario of "quicker is better, regardless of human cost" and is worth renting the movie just to see (it's in the first ten minutes).

It's also not hard to see why Chaplin was banished in 1952 for being a Communist, courtesy of our resident hypocrite, J. Edgar Hoover, whose Brutalist building downtown symbolizes him in many ways.

Not only did the Billows Machine inspire the Porky Pig cartoon, but the assembly line inspired the I Love Lucy episode "Job Switching" (1952) where she and Ethel are deluged while working at the chocolate factory.

And if that's not enough, the gears and clocks inspired the 2011 film Hugo.

Rest assured that during the 60-or-so years in between, many other films were inspired by this as well.

The beautiful Paulette Goddard (1910-1990), a former Ziegfield girl, makes her entrance as the orphaned <<gamin>> (incorrect French since she's a female, and hence a <<gamine>>).

Chaplin was arrested in the film, and released with a letter of recommendation by the sheriff for foiling a prison break, getting another job in a similarly bleak situation, and martyring himself to Goddard by taking the blame for stealing a baguette (when Goddard actually swiped it).

Part of the ambience in this movie is the overall sense of "crowdedness," whether it's people walking into a building, plates on a table, or pretty much anything - it's much more than a leitmotif here.

There's a very interesting scene in a paddy wagon with minorities shoving around Chaplin, predating the Rosa Parks bus incident by nearly 20 years. No matter how Chaplin tried, he couldn't get himself thrown back into jail (which was more comfortable for him than his dreary, assembly-line subsistence).

Chaplin naturally develops a crush on the beautiful Goddard (an American, incidentally, not French), envisioning them living in a little Mission Revival-styled villa together, picking oranges, tending to a cow walking past the front door, eating grapes dangling from a vine - all in a cute little dream scene.

This is a silent film, but there is selective language in it - it was deemed "culturally significant" by the Library of Congress in 1989, and has been lovingly restored. The lighting, the speed (some of it's in fast motion), the selected sound, the ducking of gunfire at near point-blank range - it's all just remarkable.

Chaplin's brilliant physical style of comedy is brought to the fore in his fourth-floor roller skating scene with Goddard inside of an empty department store. Then, up on the fifth floor, where the bedding is, it turns less silly and more loving and romantic. As the film moves on, the viewer will find himself (or herself) developing more-and-more of a crush on Goddard, just as Chaplin did.

Bullets fired into a wooden cask of rum (27 years old!), leave Chaplin with no choice but to chug it as it spews out, getting "blasted" and blissful, toasting his three newfound friends.

The next morning, Goddard wakes up on the fifth floor, alone, at 6:05, and escapes before the store opens at 9:30 AM, with the typical shrews bargain hunting - only to find Chaplin asleep in the Women's Apparel section hidden under a pile of clothing.

Music - it's a mix of proud military marches, riffs on Gershwin, romantic, violin-based love themes, and was all written by Chaplin himself. *What* a genius this man was.

Goddard and Chaplin end up in a decrepit shack, with her exclaiming "It's paradise!" solely because they're together.

"Of course, it's no Buckingham Palace," she adds, shortly before Chaplin falls through a door into a swamp. It's interesting that during this movie, I realized that Chaplin and Goddard were married in real life - from 1936 (when this film was made) until 1942.  I was going to comment on how realistic Chaplin and Goddard's affection for one another seemed during this movie, and that's because it was.

Newspaper Flash! The Factories have reopened, and must repair their long-idle machinery. Chaplin scampers for a job, and finds one, comically repairing things as needed, all during joyously flamboyant music tinged with little xylophone strikes, and an upbeat, happy tempo. (Of course, in the process, he smashes and ruins a co-workers "family heirloom" - a cheap little clock. With a lesser talent, this would all be meaningless, but with Chaplin, "films about nothing" - refer to Seinfeld here - can be meaningful and significant. This scene with his co-worker, caught in the gearing mechanism, is hilarious in a Marx Brothers kind of way.

"I wonder if he started in Vaudeville," my friend Jim said during the film.

"Sure he did," I guessed (correctly!) - he then proceeded to feed his co-worker, who was stuck in the gearing mechanism, an entire bunch of celery, and then hand-fed him roast chicken. This, while only the man's head was sticking out. You have to see it - it is a laugh-riot, and slapstick comedic genius of the highest order.

The workers are forced to go on strike, and after Chaplin calms down the police, he accidentally hits one in the head with a rock ... back in the paddy wagon.

One week later, on a merry-go-round, Goddard is dancing like a gypsy in the street, pulling people into a local cafe. The savvy owner recognizes her charms and hires her.

Another week later, she's waiting outside the police station for Chaplin, who has just been released.

(By this time, late into the film, you realize this isn't some dystopian tragedy; it's a hilarious parody that uses dystopia as its premise.)

He gets a trial job at Goddard's cafe, waiting tables. She is listed as a juvenile delinquent (boy, she is *very* old-looking for a minor), and as Chaplin is trying to bus trays while being assaulted by a nipping canine, he drills a few holes in a giant wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano as a customer complains that he's waited an hour for his roast duck. More hilarity ensues, food flies everywhere as trays are bumped and spilled, and a straw bottle of Chianti is somehow weaved on a tray through an impossibly crowded dance floor, onward, to the disgruntled customer, still screaming for his duck. You just have to see this to appreciate it - my words certainly do not do it justice of any sort. Several minutes later, Chaplin *still* can't manage to reach the irate customer, who is, at this point, standing on his chair and screaming. After perfectly balancing the tray in Olympic fashion, he finally manages to get the angry man his roast duck (a whole roast duck) and Chianti. Carving it table side, a la Peking Duck, the restaurant somehow turns into a rugby match, and the customer's entire table is turned over.

"I hope you can sing," the manager chides in a back room.

The singing waiters then come out in a quartet (without Chaplin). Chaplin and Goddard are waiting in the back room, Goddard beautifully dressed - this, as racist, minstrel-type words are coming in from the quartet (despite the uproariously funny humor, things such as this will always trouble me, as well they should).

Chaplin dances like Michael Jackson, even doing a primitive version of a moonwalk.

"Sing! Never mind the words!" Goddard says, as he can't remember them. He sang in twisted French with an Italian accent. Then, he seems to switch to a more Spanish language - it's all just a melange and a goofy Latinate performance in a completely ridiculous atmosphere. The movie has turned into a complete farce at this point.

Then, the Verdi-esque background music accompanies an offer of a full-time job, as the lovely Goddard is apprehended for her delinquency warrant. She gives Chaplin a tearful hug, and the restaurant manager reluctantly parts with her ... but then, she (of course) makes a run for it with Chaplin in a now-emptying restaurant - red-checkered tablecloths on the tables.

Dawn arrives. A lonely country road appears with the two of them sitting on the side of it, all alone. They are in love, fully realize it, and end up walking off, together, down the dusty road. The End.

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