To make a silent film in 1931, four years after The Jazz Singer, was to buck the trend in a film industry rapidly divesting itself of silence. To make another in 1936, nearly a decade after the advent of sound, appeared downright perverse. Charlie Chaplin had once been the paramount icon of modernity, rushing headlong across the screen in a dazzling imitation of the speed and grace of contemporary life. In clinging stubbornly to silence with City Lights, and then (mostly) with Modern Times, however, he was risking seeming, of all things, passé. For audiences accustomed to the rapid-fire patter of the Marx Brothers, W. C. Fields, and Mae West, Chaplin’s refusal was stretching the limits of their dedication to the Little Tramp—Modern Times, especially, suffered at the box office. And yet, when accounts are tallied of Chaplin’s greatest works—the foremost films of the foremost performer in the history of American film—these two era-straddling anomalies are often at the top.
Chaplin once told fellow filmmaker Jean Cocteau that a film was like a tree: when shaken, it shed everything loose and unnecessary, leaving only its essential form. For the man who had created the most beloved film character of all time, spoken dialogue was merely a decorative leaf distracting attention from the sturdy oak of performance. Twirling his cane, tipping his hat with delightful delicacy to a generation of moviegoers, Chaplin’s Tramp had needed no words to communicate. “For years, I have specialized in one type of comedy—strictly pantomime,” Chaplin observed in 1931, the year of City Lights. “I have measured it, gauged it, studied. I have been able to establish exact principles to govern its reactions on audiences. It has a certain pace and tempo. Dialogue, to my way of thinking, always slows action, because action must wait on words.”
Chaplin was afraid of losing what had made him so remarkable by embracing sound, but he also feared irrelevance. “I was obsessed by a depressing fear of being old-fashioned,” he said of his hiatus from filmmaking after City Lights. But how could he modernize without erasing what was unique about him? This was the problem posed and, for the moment, solved by Modern Times. “I forget the words,” the Tramp pantomimes to his love (played by Paulette Goddard), referring to a song, and what is true of the character was true of the artist as well. For the film is not silent, precisely; it is merely without dialogue, while featuring music, sound effects, and a climactic bit of Chaplin’s own singsong gibberish (about which more shortly). It is a recapitulation of his earlier work, the director taking a triumphant final lap around the style he did so much to invent, before reluctantly turning to the new challenges of sound. In it, the Tramp bows one last time to the audience that has loved him so much, before disappearing forever.
We think of Chaplin as such a product of the twentieth century—its technological prowess, its speed, its ready commodification—that it is easy to forget that the man himself was a child of the nineteenth century, born in London in 1889. Chaplin’s childhood was brief, cut short by the tragedies of losing his father to alcoholism-induced dropsy and his mother to the ravages of mental illness. Charlie spent much of his youth in dreary workhouses, interrupted by brief stints with relatives, before setting out on his own at the age of fourteen.
The young Chaplin wheedled his way into a temporary position with Fred Karno’s vaudeville company in 1908. Karno had hired Chaplin’s half brother and protector Sydney two years earlier but soon discovered that it was undoubtedly Charlie who was the star of the family, as he would be of the company. The Karno players toured incessantly, and on one American jaunt, Chaplin was summoned to an attorney’s office for a meeting. He assumed that he was to receive a bequest from a relative, but what was on offer was far more significant: a contract to join Mack Sennett’s Keystone film company in Los Angeles, at $150 a week.
The elements came together rapidly. The costume—too-large pants, too-small jacket, little hat, and big shoes—was grabbed out of Keystone’s wardrobe closet for an early short. The duck-footed waddle was borrowed from a figure Chaplin remembered from his London childhood. The raucous mayhem was the trademark of Sennett, creator of the Keystone Kops, but the jaunty tone of exuberant politesse—the tipped hat and twirled cane—was Chaplin’s own.
Chaplin’s early years in Hollywood were a remarkable blur of improvisatory brilliance and astounding artistic growth. Sennett was an ideal mentor, but Chaplin rapidly outgrew the roughhousing, looking beyond slapstick to something subtler. Shorts like The Rink (1916), One A.M. (1916), and The Immigrant (1917) are perhaps the finest examples of his virtuosic physical gifts, of the unexpected reversals and inversions at the heart of his humor, and of his deft sentimental touch. The Tramp is heroic, and heroically self-serving, and his manipulations of the physical world are magnificently cunning. The films’ plots are the artificial limits placed on Chaplin’s seemingly limitless ingenuity, the net that turns anarchy into a civilized game of tennis.
Chaplin argued, during his one- and two-reel reign in the 1910s, that comedies, by their nature, should be no longer than they already were—that the requirements of the feature film would inevitably distort the charms of the form. The director had, though, been subtly shifting the concept of what a Tramp short could be; the nakedly emotional Easy Street (1917), for example, was hardly the stuff of Keystone comedy. Restless as he was, Chaplin soon saw that he had conquered the ten-to-twenty-minute format. He could go on indefinitely producing variations on 1916’s The Pawnshop (and there are those who claim, not unreasonably, that that was what he did best), but he preferred the uncertainty of a fresh challenge. The emotional tug of late Chaplin shorts like The Immigrant demanded a broader canvas.
Chaplin’s feature-length films are not merely extensions of his shorts; they are translations of his comic technique into a more flexible, emotive form. The shorts are brilliant, but they primarily document the brilliance of the performer; the features allow Chaplin to vary the emotional palette of his work and to engage his skill as a filmmaker. The shorts had made Chaplin a star, but the features made him an artist. The Tramp is no longer just a miraculously energetic scamp but also a fragile soul wounded by a cruel, uncaring world. Chaplin features like The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), and City Lights (1931) are hardly less astonishingly amusing than his shorts, but they add a dimension of feeling heretofore lacking in his work. Chaplin was adamant that the Tramp would never speak, and given the indubitable genius of his performances in The Gold Rush and City Lights, one sees his point. Modern Times would be the Tramp’s last run.
In his review of Modern Times for the New Republic, Otis Ferguson argued that the film could best be understood as a return to Chaplin’s roots: “It is a feature picture made up of several one- or two-reel shorts, proposed titles being The Shop, The Jailbird, The Watchman, and The Singing Waiter.” And indeed, the film does divide neatly into four segments, of which the one Ferguson dubbed The Shop—wherein the Tramp is seen working the assembly line until he becomes the assembly line—is easily the most memorable, and remembered. (One could argue that all of Jacques Tati’s work springs from this segment of Modern Times.) The structure of the film, that is, reflects a certain nostalgia for Chaplin’s past glories.
But Modern Times also points to a new phase in Chaplin’s life and thinking, to changes in his outlook, personal as well as aesthetic. The film marks the first time that his private political awakening—his most costly transformation, born of his experiences of the previous decade—appears tangibly on the screen. Later, he would be accused of being a communist, but the film’s political symbols (a humbled worker here, what appears to be a red flag there) are mostly subsumed by the humor. Overall, Chaplin seems to be drawing a connection between his awareness of the Tramp’s obsolescence—and, potentially, his own—and fears about the mechanization of modern life and its potential for crushing the common man, whom the Tramp has come to symbolize. His apprehensions are writ large in Modern Times, transmuted from a lone filmmaker to all of humanity: it is the machine that is mankind’s true opponent, deadening the senses and twisting flesh into steel.
Chaplin is in earnest about his concerns, but he successfully translates them into the stuff of superlative comedy. To see the Tramp strapped into an auto-feeding machine, being shoveled a steady diet of metal nuts, or emerging from a shift on the factory line still adjusting phantom screws (even attempting to tighten the buttons on a woman’s dress), is to witness Chaplin’s alchemical gift for transforming anxiety into humor. The Tramp is menaced by technology, and while Chaplin’s revenge is only partial and symbolic, it is essential nonetheless.
Chaplin pits the Tramp’s superhuman improvisational abilities against a soulless mechanical sphere that, he believes, is the negation of our collective humanity. Witness the brilliant scene where the Tramp must feed lunch to his coworker, stuck inside the gears of an enormous machine. Charlie uses a chicken as a funnel to pour hot coffee into his recumbent friend’s mouth. Chaplin is, in essence, placing his own genius in competition with modernity, asking audiences to root for his inventive brilliance over the unthinking dutifulness of the machine.
In Paulette Goddard, with whom he was romantically linked at the time, Chaplin finds his ideal female lead. Modern Times is not his most romantic work—that title unquestionably belongs to City Lights—but after years of limited female costars, Chaplin finally had one whose zest, charm, and energy approximated his own. Their characters’ romance is a painful one, as all of Chaplin’s screen entanglements are, but he grants Goddard the rare privilege of walking off into the distance with him at the film’s end, two wanderers content with the open road—and each other.
Modern Times is actually, secretly, an origin story for the Tramp, just in time for his farewell. When Charlie is hired as a singing waiter and belts out a charming gibberish song composed of jumbled, faux-Italian syllables—Chaplin’s virgin attempt at producing sound, if not speech, on-screen—we are witnessing the birth of an entertainer. All that has passed is mere prologue. But the singing Tramp would not go on.
After Modern Times, Chaplin grew increasingly serious about politics, specifically the threat of fascism. And with the rise of Adolf Hitler and the onset of World War II, he became more outspoken, addressing a war rally in San Francisco on the urgency of Russian war relief, referring to the crowd as “comrades.” What seemed like innocuous patriotic fervor during the war took on, for some, a disturbing red tinge afterward, and fervent anticommunists sought to tar Chaplin as a Soviet fellow traveler. In 1952, as Charlie, his wife, Oona, and their four children traveled by boat to London for the premiere of Limelight, word came by radio that U.S. attorney general James McGranery had invalidated Chaplin’s reentry permit, calling for the INS to hold hearings on his fitness to reside in the country. McGranery hinted at secret documentation that would reveal much about the actor and director’s “unsavory character.” Chaplin and his family resettled in Switzerland. He would not set foot in the United States for another twenty years—when, more than four decades after the Academy had first presented him with an honorary award, for The Circus (1928), he was summoned back from exile to receive a lifetime achievement Oscar.
Whether because of changing political or aesthetic winds, Chaplin’s films after Modern Times never received the universal acclaim of his earlier work. The Great Dictator (1940), which viciously parodied Hitler, was well-liked though criticized by many for preachiness, and later Chaplin efforts like Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Limelight, and A King in New York (1957)—as bitter as they were sweet—were battered by critics, who found them dogmatic.
The unique triumph of Modern Times is that it maintains the playful aura of the early Tramp and the comedic sophistication of The Gold Rush and City Lights, all while carefully balancing the humor with sentiment, charm with political awareness. It is Chaplin before life, and the world of which he was an ever more careful observer, began to weigh him down. With it, he bid a fond farewell to the silent film, and to the character who had made him the most famous man in the world. For Chaplin, it was the end of an era. But for fans of the greatest talent ever to grace the American screen, that era can be retrieved merely by cuing up Modern Times once more.