A Summary and Review of Modern Times

A Summary and Review of Modern Times

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  1. Modern Times (1936)

    Producer/Writer/Director/Composer: Charlie Chaplin
    Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman, Stanley Sanford, Chester Conklin


    Modern Times was released at a point in which the public had almost fully embraced the sound films or the "talkies" as they were referred to. Everyone that is, except for Charlie Chaplin. Charlie didn’t want to give in to the pressures of what was popular. He was like a non-conformist before all the emos and goths made it lame. The main reason why he didn’t want to make a talkie is because he never wanted his beloved character, the Tramp, to speak. As soon as The Tramp spoke, the magic would be lost, he would say. He was simply quoted as saying, "The Tramp does not speak." Charlie would cave in a bit, because Modern Times has actually been labeled a "silent-talkie." Meaning, it’s mostly a silent film, but has talking sound bites. Mostly, the only talking you hear comes from technology like radios and speakers. There is a subtle irony in it that is proof that Charlie was more than just a comedian, he was very creative with his writing. Charlie caved a bit with Modern Times but he would eventually give in, as his next picture would actually be a talking picture, but it did not feature his famous character. Modern Times would be Charlie’s last silent film as well as the last film with our friend, The Little Tramp. And what a send-off he gave him.


    Charlie’s Tramp plays an assembly line factory worker who is on the brink of insanity, being forced to do demeaning manual labor. He becomes a test subject in an experimental product to increase productivity but it proves to be ineffective. Later, Charlie suffers a mental breakdown from all the work he has been doing and takes it out on everyone at the factory. Eventually he is subdued and sent to a mental institution.

    Soon after leaving the asylum, Charlie finds his freedom taken away from him yet again, when he gets mistaken as a Communist leader and sent to jail. While in jail, he accidentally consumes smuggled cocaine, and while under the influence of it, he manages to stop a jail break and save the policemen. As a gesture of thanks to Charlie, he is released.

    Having been incarcerated for the past few years in two separate instances, the outside world feels strange to Charlie. He realizes that he belongs in jail and tries to get himself arrested. He fails to do so, until he runs into a poor orphan girl that is referred to as a “gamine girl.” The girl is being arrested for stealing a loaf of bread, but Charlie comes forward and proclaims that he is the one who took the bread. The girl is grateful but confused. However, when an eyewitness stresses that she saw the girl take the bread, Charlie is let go and the girl is taken away. Undeterred, he tries to get arrested again, and succeeds by ordering a large meal at a restaurant and not paying. Later in the police van, Charlie finds himself with a group of convicts, including the orphan girl. She is happy to see him and tells him that she will repay his kind act by helping him escape. Charlie tries to tell her otherwise, but before he can, she manages to get them out of the van and far away before the police notice.

    They develop a strong relationship, and dream of building a better life together. Charlie manages to find a job as a nightshift security guard at a department store, where he sneaks in the girl and they partake of all the food and supplies they may need. Later, a group of robbers try to hold up the store, but one of them happens to be one of Charlie’s co-workers from the factory and he lets Charlie go. They spend the rest of the night eating, drinking, and having fun.

    The next morning, Charlie is discovered for what he had been doing and gets arrested once more. As soon as he gets out, he finds the girl waiting for him and she tells him that she has found a home for them. The house is a very small dingy shack, but to the two destitute street urchins, it’s paradise. Charlie soon hears of the factory being re-opened and accepting new jobs. He heads over there immediately and successfully gets another job. His new job doesn’t last long though, because the rest of the workers decide to go on strike. A dismayed Charlie watches as the rest of the workers riot, but when he accidentally hits a police officer with a brick, he is arrested once more and sent to jail.

    This time when Charlie gets out, he finds the girl working as a waitress and dancer at a singing café. She manages to get Charlie a job as a singing waiter, despite Charlie complaining that he cannot sing. His singing soon becomes very important, when he fails at being a waiter and is forced to let his singing save his job. When his song number comes up, he is very nervous and keeps forgetting the lyrics. The girl gets the idea to write the lyrics on his cuffs so he can reference them when he forgets.

    Charlie starts his number by dancing, but in the process, his cuffs go flying. When the time comes for him to sing, the audience (and his boss) becomes restless when he doesn’t. From the sidelines, the girl suggests he make up the words as he goes long. Charlie decides to sing a nonsense song, which is a song sung in a nonexistent language or a pseudo-language. His skill as a pantomime, singer, and dancer save his performance, and he becomes a huge hit. That is, until the police come for the orphan girl. Thankfully, Charlie and the girl escape successfully.

    Charlie and his beloved gamine girl are sitting by the side of the road, unsure of their futures. They quickly realize that their future no longer matters. All that matters is that they are together, and they walk off into the horizon, hand in hand.


    Funny, smart, and heart-wrenching, Modern Times is another cinematic capture of perfection, or in other words, another one of Chaplin’s best work.

    Modern Times is a satire about the Tramp getting caught up in the modernization and industrialization of society. It’s a commentary on the social situations of labor and people’s rights that suffered under the Great Depression, which Chaplin believed, was a direct result of industrialization. Surprisingly, the film is very relevant in its themes. This film would also feature Paulette Goddard, who was one of Charlie’s most beloved wives. But much like his other marriages, it would not work out.

    This daring satire is surprisingly intelligent in its humor and storytelling with some brilliant satirical themes, but at the same time doesn’t skimp on the classic Chaplin slapstick and of course, classic Chaplin pathos. Much like his other best work, it’s the perfect marriage of hilarious, smart, and touching.

    It may not be as consistently funny as his absolute best work, but the film never gets boring and still manages to be fun and enjoyable, even its downtime (which is still on a high). And there are loads of hilariously brilliant gags. Let’s not forget that some of Charlie’s most noteworthy and indelible gags are present in Modern Times as well, such as the nervous breakdown scene, the "nose-powder incident," the roast duck scene, and the red flag scene. The assembly line scene is one that has been copied many times, most famously in an episode of the classic television series “I Love Lucy.” But the best moment in the film, and one of the best moments in Charlie’s entire repertoire is the magnificent nonsense song and dance. It would be first time anybody would hear Charlie’s voice on screen. What’s so great about that scene is that it’s so funny, but at the same time it’s so amazing to witness Charlie’s talent as a singer, pantomime, and dancer. Charlie knew how to make an entrance, and this was his entrance into the talking picture world.

    It’s hard not to appreciate the genius satire and the underlying themes that provide the viewer with a truly invigorating experience. One also can’t help but be appreciative of Chaplin’s daring in releasing this silent-talkie in the midst of the sky-rocketing popularity of the full-talkies. Modern Times is definitely one of Chaplin’s masterfully crafted masterpieces, being another film to have the honor of being added to the National Film Registry. It’s a telling story with gripping storytelling, hilarious sight gags, ingenious satire, and an uplifting experience that will leave you smiling a mile-wide grin like an idiot. And not care who sees.


    RATING: 100/100



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