← Back to Reviews

Modern Times

Modern Times, 1936

An unnamed factory worker (Charlie Chaplin) struggles through a series of misfortunes and mishaps, eventually meeting up with a down-on-her-luck runaway (Paulette Goddard).

Sometimes you watch a classic that you've been aware of for a long time and it takes a very short period of time to be like "Oh, okay, I get it." And, yeah, I get it. From the numerous set-pieces to the commentary on "modern" life, the film is compelling and moves along like, well, a well-oiled machine.

From the very first shot when an image of herded sheep fades into a crowd of people emerging from a subway station, the commentary on the life of the worker is very blunt. In one of the film's most infamous sequences, Chaplin's character is actually sucked into a large machine, just one step away from being a literal cog in the machine.

In fact, I found the portrayal of Chaplin's factory job in the first 10-15 minutes of the film to be really compelling. The factory works in such a way that the human workers are essentially part of the machinery. There's this really strange visual dynamic where the factory's owner monitors the workers on a large television, shouting orders to a muscular shirtless man who uses a large control panel to control the speed at which the workers must complete their tasks. The factory owner has no care for the physical well-being of his employees, and we see that Chaplin's long hours on the factory line have physical side effects (humorous side effects, but side effects nonetheless). In a scene that is mostly funny but which I also found kind of disturbing, Chaplin's character is used as a guinea pig for a new machine that purports to feed workers as they work, eliminating the need for lunch breaks. The factory owner passes on the malfunctioning machine (which is more like a torture device) not because of its harm, but because it isn't efficient. Through the film there is a constant theme of workers and the unemployed, and Chaplin's character frequently finds himself in the middle of bread line riots, marches, protests, and other clashes between working people and the police.

Also unexpected was a sequence in which Chaplin's character accidentally eats/snorts like a full handful of cocaine and totally loves it. Just . . . not something I would have ever guessed would happen.

Another interesting element of the film is its strange status somewhere between a silent film and one with sound. Many sequences play like a silent film, complete with inter-titles. But in other scenes, characters speak or sing, or a single source of sound (like a radio or one speaker) will exist while everyone/everything else is silent. It adds a borderline surreal element to the film and, having only seen "true" silent films from Chaplin, was almost startling!

The stunts/setpieces are top notch here. I was familiar with a few just from famous screenshots (such as the part where he is in the large gears of the machine or a sequence where he dances), but other parts (such as a trip through a department store on rollerskates) were pleasant surprises.

The only slightly off note to me was the romance between Chaplin's character and Goddard's character. The main problem: she is a teenager and he very much is not. I was relieved to find out that the actress was at least in her 20s when the movie was made (in later scenes when her outfits change she looks more like an adult), but there is a 20+ year gap between the actors and it is very visible. More so, her character is actually meant to be a teen! A main subplot involves her avoiding being taken into foster care(!) and she is being pursued by the juvenile services(!!). There's also kind of an off note at the end where
WARNING: spoilers below
her character seemingly has totally forgotten about her sisters, who were taken into state custody. Like, I sort of get it. What could she do? But the fact that she doesn't mention them or think about them, apparently, kind of bugged me.

A lot of great stuff here, just wish that the romance could have actually been between two adults.