Modern Times

Provost's Film Series

September 12, 2005


The Little Tramp

By the time he was ten years old, Charlie Chaplin had known poverty, hunger, and the bitter cold of the streets.  His father, a London stage singer and a drunk, abandoned his family and died young.  His mother, a struggling singer in her own right, battled mental illness and was hospitalized for life, leaving her children as wards of the state.  Starting out as a clog dancer in local shows, Chaplin joined Fred Karno's Speechless Comedians in 1908 at the age of eighteen.  It was on a tour of the United States with one of Karno's pantomime troupes that he captured the attention of the impresario at the head of Keystone Film Company and won a film contract.  One day, while in search of a new character for another one-reel comedy, he rummaged through the wardrobe room at Keystone and emerged as The Little Tramp.  That impromptu persona, with his Derby hat, moustache, oversize boots and baggy pants, would become the signature role of his life—and arguably the most famous character in the history of the cinema.

As The Little Tramp, Chaplin made a remarkable string of films, earned worldwide fame, and secured the independence to form his own studio.  In 1919, still only 30, he became the co-founder of United Artists, the corporation that would produce the remainder of his films.  He was that rare artist—quick-witted, emotional and spontaneous as a performer, yet painstaking and precise in his cinematography and editing, a slapstick clown at ease in the world of ideas. His work, perhaps more than any other in motion picture history, brought respectability to an industry that had been generally dismissed as popular entertainment.  More than half a century after his prime, Chaplin's films can make children laugh and still captivate scholars.


Gears, Gadgets, and Gamin

Released in 1936, Modern Times is the last of Chaplin's films in which The Little Tramp appears.  Born out of the pantomime and burlesque of Chaplin's early career, The Tramp also reflects the hard days and street smarts of his stormy childhood.  By the time he made Modern Times, the forty-seven-year-old director had learned to blend his comic intuition, sentimentality and pathos with an earnest social conscience.  Following the release of City Lights in 1931, Chaplin spent eighteen months travelling the world, where he was greeted by adoring crowds and yet saw widespread suffering. A survivor of poverty himself, Chaplin was moved and angered by the Great Depression of the 1930s.  He met the world's great intellectuals— Albert Einstein and Mahatma Gandhi, to name a couple—and developed his own economic and political theory, much of it seasoned with leftist ideals. The great shame of modern life, he believed, was unemployment.  Originally entitled "The Masses," Modern Times portrays the ragged plight and gathering rage of the displaced workers and the bleakness of urban shantytowns.  He was fearful that the rise of automation would only further disenfranchise the human worker.  The opening scenes in Modern Times satirize the assembly line of Ford Motors.  With advanced production line techniques, Ford had cut the price of its Model T from $800 to $350, but the consumer savings had come at the expense of blue-collar jobs. Government documentaries of the day boasted that the great machines of the new industrialism could do the work of thousands; Modern Times mocks that stale, hyperbolic rhetoric of the documentaries and sets it against Chaplin's sympathy for the unemployed and their families. His film, by his own report, strives to show "live spirits in the world of automatons."  But even when The Tramp is in the midst of sabotaging machines, he interrupts his madcap rebelliousness to clock in—a satiric reminder that he cannot fully escape his own social conditioning.  Part of the irony of the film is that we have no idea what the Little Tramp and his colleagues are making in the first place.  Their factory, an art-deco arena that mirrors the design of the classic film Metropolis, has plenty of nuts and bolts, lots of gears and gadgets, but no purpose.

One of the hungry and displaced characters is a teenage street waif called Gamin, played by Paulette Goddard, the young actress who had just become Chaplin's common-law wife.  Modern Times is, among all other things, a love story, with both autobiographical touches and social commentary.  An original ending to the film had Gamin become a nun, cutting her life off from the Tramp. But Chaplin opted instead for another finale—now one of his most famous scenes—that allows the two lovers to walk away together from a chance for prosperity into an ambiguous future.  It was an image of his own romance but also a clear sign that the Tramp was not a social climber.  Gamin and The Tramp dream about luxury but reject middle-class comfort.  As French director Jean-Pierre Dardenne observes, Chaplin "evades industrialism, evades capitalism, evades Communism."  His "success is to survive" just as he is, as The Tramp, and his story almost defiantly becomes an "anti-Horatio Alger tale," a refusal to serve as an icon for the great American myth about rags to riches.  Chaplin's political parodies and left-leaning views—along with his unwillingness to take American citizenship—eventually put him under the microscope of the F.B.I. which had long kept files on him and soon sponsored smear campaigns, such as a false paternity suit and McCarthy-style charges of Communism.  By 1952 the F.B.I. succeeded in stripping Chaplin's visa and the actor spent the rest of his life in Europe.  A belated lifetime achievement Oscar, given in 1972, was a modest endeavor by Americans to amend for exiling one of Hollywood's greatest artists.


Silent Defiance

The political backlash against Chaplin may be one reason why his career never flourished after his great work in the 1930s and early '40s.  But another cause may be that The Tramp could not survive the advent of "talkies."  Modern Times is famous both as Chaplin's last silent film and his first experiment with the human voice.  Talkies had been around for over eight years when Modern Times was released.  Chaplin had long used music and sound effects, but feared that dialogue would ruin his comic style.  He was, at first, ready to concede.  He had prepared a full script for Modern Times; however, not long into the project he resorted to the usual dialogue cards that flashed between scenes.  We do hear the human voice in the factory—but not from humans.  All voices are filtered through machines.  The boss communicates but through a telecast.  A salesman makes his pitch with a gramophone.  Chaplin underscores his defiance of talking movies by keeping his own character silent in the face of talking technology. 

One of Chaplin's fears about dialogue was the loss of freedom in adapting speeds.  When voices were first integrated into pictures, films had to keep a steady speed so sound and image could be aligned.  Chaplin, however, uses different speeds for different scenes, usually running between 16-18 frames a second but sometimes accelerating to as many as 24.  That variation accounts for some of the comic effects in The Tramp's famous walk.  Late in the film, Chaplin does finally let us hear his voice, a landmark moment in his career, but as usual there is a twist.  He doesn't actually talk (there are still those old-fashioned dialogue cards).  Rather he sings—and yet his song is mostly nonsense, a pseudo-Italian gibberish.  Like so much of Chaplin's craft, The Tramp's first and last venture into the world of sound is a spoof.