78 – Modern Times (1936)

The Mechanical SalesmanDon’t stop for lunch: be ahead of your competitor. The Billows Feeding Machine will eliminate the lunch hour, increase your production, and decrease your overhead.

 

Seen before?

R: I think I might have seen at least some of it when I was 6-7 years old. But no, not really.

F: No. Although in watching it I definitely recognise some iconic moments. 

 

Thoughts?

R: This might be controversial, but watching this I came to the conclusion Charlie Chaplin was pretty good at physical comedy.

F: Before watching Sunrise I would have probably said all silent films relied on larger than life physical movement. But I know now this isn’t the case and as a result can appreciate more the talent that Chaplin had for this kind of comedy.

R: I don’t know Chaplin’s filmography at all well, so came into this with that image of the custard pie in the face in my mind, and sort of imagined that was about all that Chaplin comedy would have to offer. There is though much more you can take from this film than the – admittedly very well done – slapstick. It is comedy that has a point to make, which is almost always the best kind, isn’t it?

F: Yes the comedy comes from the situations as well as the slapstick. My favourite part was a more physical moment though when they get Chaplin to demonstrate the automatic lunch feeder. There actually is a custard pie in the face but it’s not a cliche. Do you have a stand out moment?

R: Yes all of the opening scene in the factory, where you are getting that social commentary as well as the raw physical comedy, is superb. Throughout the film Chaplin’s facial expressions are gold, but the way he twists his face up and keeps screw tightening even when he’s not at the conveyer belt is where I started to appreciate what a master of his craft he was. What surprised me about the film is that the issues it tackles are still very much with us. I didn’t expect it to feel so relevant.

F: I’m finding a lot of elements of these older films still have relevance today. It’s one of the ways they hold up so well. I also enjoyed the scene where Chaplin has to improvise the song in the restaurant. It’s the kind of comedy that appeals across ages and generations.

R: Absolutely, although when you say it’s comedy that appeals across generations there’s a danger people will think that means it’s somehow simplistic humour. But it’s really not: it’s intricately worked out, perfectly timed, and often works on several levels. Is this going to be one of the films on the list we both end up gushing over? Was there anything you didn’t like?

F: Well this film is old and there were times it felt old. It’s a predominantly silent film made at a time when talkies were mainstream. And I’d also be interested to come back to it after we’ve seen the other Charlie Chaplin films on the list. Whether each of his films contain sufficiently different jokes or whether each one just give the audiences what they perhaps wanted which is more of the same. There’s a chance all of his films could merge into one (although I hope this isn’t the case!) What about you? Were there any negatives?

R: I’m curious too about how much variety we’ll find in the rest of his work. This is the last film Chaplin made featuring the Little Tramp character, and it might be that this is him at the peak of his powers having refined the material over many years. But compared to the late-era Marx brothers film A Night at the Opera, which came out only a year earlier, this felt much fresher and relevant. Again, I like it when comedy has more to say than, “gosh aren’t we wacky”, and I’d guess that will help differentiate this from the other Chaplin films we’ve got coming up. So I think the short answer to your question is: no, not really!

F: I liked how there was a fairly strong female character in this. The film takes the time to give us some of her back sorry before she meets Chaplin. Plus the seriousness of her situation (orphaned and homeless) contrasts well at times to the humour.

R: Yes, she is the one who finds them a shack to call their own, and from the moment they meet you get the impression this might be a relationship of equals. That’s quite a contrast to the last silent film we watched!

F: One final thing I’d like to highlight are the special effects in this film. The scene in the factory where he goes into the cogs of the machinery is really great and I’ve seen a video of how the scene on roller skates was done. Puts the effects in some modern films to shame!

 

Is it worthy of the top 100?

R: Chaplin proves worthy of his rep. It’s a yes from me.

F: Absolutely!

 

Up next:
All The President’s Men (1976)
Previously:
The Wild Bunch (1969)
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